Obama to VFW on VA crisis: 'Our work is not done'
By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 21, 2015
PITTSBURGH — Speaking to about 5,000 veterans Tuesday, President Barack Obama touted improvements in the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs and employment numbers for those who have left the service, though he cautioned that much more must be done.
“Veterans continue to tell us that once they get through the door (of VA hospitals), the care is very good,” Obama said. “But we’ve got to acknowledge our work isn’t done, we’ve still got a huge challenge.”
He touched on the recent nuclear deal with Iran, a foreign policy more focused on diplomacy than war, and the deadly shooting in Chattanooga, Tenn., that killed five servicemembers, but the bulk of his speech was focused on the health care and benefits system that so many in the audience rely on.
The setting was particularly poignant. Pittsburgh is the site of a VA hospital where at least six patients died from an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that local hospital officials tried to cover up.
Obama said the secret wait lists that VA hospitals used to make wait times look shorter are a thing of the past, and a long-standing disability claims backlog that keeps many veterans waiting for benefits has been reduced by 80 percent. With VA Secretary Bob McDonald on stage, Obama said that despite the accomplishments, much more must be done to get veterans the care they deserve.
“I’m not satisfied, Bob’s still not satisfied,” he said. “We are focused on this at the highest levels.”
Obama also announced changes in consumer protection rules meant to keep predatory lenders from taking advantage of troops.
The Military Lending Act was passed in 2006 to tighten rules on payday loans and similar short-term loan operations that often pop up near U.S. military installations. Still, loopholes allowed many businesses to continue charging rates that sometimes topped 400 percent, according to White House and Defense officials.
He personally paid tribute to the five victims of the Chattanooga mass shooting, saying, “God bless these American heroes.”
Perhaps reflecting mixed feelings about the president among veterans, Obama often drew tepid applause, especially for comments about his nuclear deal with Iran. He did, however, receive a rousing ovation after calling for the release of five Americans, including Marine veteran Amir Mirza Hekmati and Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, being held by the Iranian government.
“These Americans need to be back home with their families,” he said.
Early in the speech, a protester held up a sign about the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that left U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead. Fellow VFW members ripped the sign out of his hand, and a police officer removed him after the protester shouted “Benghazi” a several times.
Before the speech, incoming VFW Commander John Biedrzycki gave the president generally high marks on his policy toward veterans, especially for his work to improve the VA. About Iran, Biedrzycki said there is a misperception that veterans are always against diplomatic overtures instead of military action.
“The Iran thing, the devil’s in the detail and let’s see the details” before judging, he said. “Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, veterans want to go to war — no they don’t. They’re the last ones who want to go to war.”
Veterans listen to speeches at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Pittsburgh, where President Barack Obama addressed several thousand members on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. Some are worried Obama is trying to cut veterans benefits, while others gave him credit for tackling the VA scandal.
HEATH DRUZIN/STARS AND STRIPES