WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama signed a bill into law Thursday designed to restore trust in the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs following a national uproar over long waits and poor care at veterans’ hospitals and clinics across the nation.
The $16.3 billion bill includes money for thousands of doctors, nurses and health care specialists at nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics. The money also will pay for veterans to receive private care if they live 40 miles or more from a VA facility, and it will finance the opening of 27 new medical facilities.
“As a new generation of veterans returns home from war and transitions into civilian life, we have to make sure the VA system can keep pace with that new demand,” Obama said. “Keep in mind that I have increased funding for the VA since I came into office by extraordinary amounts.”
Obama signed the bill after speaking at a military facility at Fort Belvoir, Va., south of the nation’s capital. He was joined by newly confirmed Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald, lawmakers, service members and veterans.
The law represents a rare compromise between the feuding Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democratic-led Senate. The bill passed last week just before both chambers left Washington for a five-week summer recess.
“In a dysfunctional Congress, I’m glad we accomplished something significant for veterans,” said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont. “This legislation will go a long way toward ending unacceptably long waiting times for veterans to access health care and allow the VA the resources to hire the doctors, nurses and other medical staff it needs to address these problems over the long term.”
Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said he hopes Obama realizes the administration can no longer ignore the department’s problems.
“I sincerely hope the president views this event as more than just a photo-op or speaking engagement,” he said. “Instead, it should serve as a wake-up call. VA’s problems festered because administration officials ignored or denied the department’s challenges at every turn.”
Obama thanked lawmakers and urged them to confirm his other nominees at the department, including an assistant secretary for policy, when they return to Capitol Hill next month.
The VA scandal erupted earlier this year after whistleblowers reported problems over delayed patient care and the agency tried to cover up months-long wait times for appointments.
A Veterans Affairs Department audit of its 731 medical facilities concluded in June that a 14-day wait time for an appointment was unrealistic and that 57,436 veterans had been waiting 90 days or more for an initial medical appointment. Veterans at some facilities were also waiting as long as 145 days to see a primary care physician or specialist.
In the audit, 13 percent of schedulers said that supervisors or other co-workers had instructed them to enter different dates in the appointment system than the ones requested by veterans seeking medical and psychological assistance.
VA interviews of 3,772 clinical and administrative staff found that 8 percent of schedulers felt pressured to bypass the VA’s official Electronic Wait List system and keep unofficial lists to make waiting times appear shorter than they actually were.
The problems led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. McDonald, a former Procter & Gamble CEO, was sworn in last week to lead the agency, which employs more than 310,000 people and provides health care for nearly 9 million veterans.
VA officials have vowed to hold employees responsible, and the new law gives them new powers to do that. They announced last week that they would fire two supervisors and discipline four other employees in Colorado and Wyoming accused of falsifying health care data.
Obama said his administration had reached out to more than 215,000 veterans in recent weeks to make sure that they are getting off wait lists and will hold town halls at all VA facilities to hear from veterans.
“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. And even as we focus on the urgent reforms we need at the VA right now, particularly around wait lists and the health care system, we can’t lose sight of our long-term goals for our service members and our veterans.”