As expected, President Barack Obama addressed problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs and a number of other issues concerning care for veterans.
He also addressed foreign policy. The president reiterated he will not send soldiers and marines back to Iraq to fight extremists known as the Islamic State.
"American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq. We’ll not allow the United State to be dragged back into another ground war in Iraq. Because ultimately it is up to the Iraqis to bridge their differences and secure themselves."
But the main focus of the president’s speech was domestic. Specifically, efforts to increase access to mental health and medical care for veterans. WFAE's Tom Bullock covered the president's visit. Here's his report and conversation with Mark Rumsey during Tuesday's All Things Considered:
Mark Rumsey: In his speech, President Obama said he was launching 19 new executive actions to help veterans.
Tom Bullock: That’s right. Many of the executive actions – that’s where the president uses his authority to set up programs without need for congressional approval – involve the care and access at Veterans Affairs hospitals nationwide.
Over the last three months long wait times, secret lists of waiting patients and other issues have plagued the VA. But administrators at some of these hospitals were getting performance bonuses based on rigged numbers. And because of the way the VA is set up, those administrators still had job security. President Obama said, "If you engage in unethical practices or cover up a serious problem you will be fired."
MR: So it takes a presidential order to fire unethical VA staff?
TB: Yeah – sad but true.
MR: On a more serious note – the President also announced changes to how the VA handles mental health treatment for veterans.
TB: Those changes come in the form of greater access to mental health providers who treat conditions like traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder.
The President wants electronic medical records for all veterans so they can be more easily transferred to the VA when a person leaves active duty. This, he said, would allow for veterans to receive uninterrupted care when they transition out of the service.
The President also addressed the serious problem of veteran suicide, which has dramatically increased since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama said he is expanding suicide prevention programs in the military and at the VA:
"So colleges and clinicians can spot the warning signs and encourage our troops and veterans to seek help. We’ll improve access to care with more peer support. Veterans counseling veterans at VA hospitals and clinics. We’re calling on congress to ensure our troops get coverage for mental health care that’s on par with other medical conditions."
The president then said we need to ensure that service members and veterans don’t see asking for help as a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.
MR: There are many veterans issues besides healthcare. What else did he address today?
TB: The president said banks will work with the VA to make sure veterans get mortgage reductions they are entitled to under the law – right now they have to ask for those programs, now enrollment will be easier.
Another program he announced deals with job training and certification for veterans. Currently much of the training troops receive in the military don’t transfer to civilian life – making it harder for vets to get jobs they are actually qualified for. The President said today – that has to change.
"If you’re a medic in a war zone you shouldn’t have to go take Nursing 101 to work in a hospital here in the United States. If you can handle million dollar pieces of equipment in a war zone that should count for something in getting certified back here at home."
That goal can’t be achieved by executive action alone. The administration will need to partner with private industry, state boards and universities and the like for that to happen.
MR: The American Legion is the country’s largest veterans group. How did they respond to the President’s speech?
TB: The general sense from people we talked to in the crowd was the president said what they wanted to hear. But most also said, they’ll wait to see if the president delivers.