One week after Congress gave its overwhelming approval, President Obama traveled to Fort Belvoir, Virginia Thursday, where he signed legislation to overhaul the Veterans Affairs Department.
The conference committee bill sailed through the House by a vote of 420-5, and 93-3 in the Senate. The $16.3 billion measure expands community healthcare options for vets facing long wait times and commutes; and hires more doctors, nurses and other health-care workers to work with a new generation of veterans returning to civilian life.
“We have to make sure the VA system can keep pace with that new demand,” said the President. “Keep in mind that I have increased funding for the VA since I came into office. But, we also have extraordinary numbers of veterans coming home.”
Veterans living 40 miles or more from the nearest VA hospital or clinic – or who can’t get an appointment in a timely manner -- will now be able to seek medical care from private doctors. The new law also improves accountability, by giving more and sharper teeth to Robert McDonald, the newly-confirmed Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
The legislation is a response to reports of about 35 veterans who died before seeing a doctor, after their care was delayed at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix. VA investigators confirmed the reports, which were first made by whistleblowers to CNN.
In one of his first acts, McDonald has ordered all VA healthcare facilities to hold town hall meetings, to hear directly from the veterans they serve.
The bill is the result of negotiations between Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent and Republican Cong. Jeff Miller of Chumuckla. They chair the veterans' affairs committees in their respective chambers, and co-chaired the conference committee. During a news conference last week, Miller said the blueprint also begins a conversation on the VA’s future.
“Sen. Sanders and I differ about certain things,” said Miller, “but one thing we do agree about is that the veterans of this country deserve the best-quality health care that they can get in a timely fashion. The VA is not sacred; the veteran is.”
“Funding for veterans’ needs must be considered a cost of war, and appropriated as emergency spending,” Sanders said. “Planes and guns and tanks are a cost of war. So is taking care of the men and women who use those weapons and who fight our battles.”
Sanders attended the signing ceremony at Fort Belvoir. Miller was unable to attend due to a pair of previously scheduled trips to El Paso, Texas and Roswell, New Mexico. Sanders said last month that the new bill was just a start, and on Wednesday the President concurred.
“This will not and cannot be the end of our effort,” Obama said. “Implementing this law will take time. It’s going to require focus on the part of all of us.
In a written statement, Cong. Jeff Miller called on President Obama to become personally involved in solving VA’s many problems. Those include ordering the VA and Department of Defense to work together to establish a joint electronic health record system, integrated across all DoD and VA components.