President Obama signed into law a major overhaul of the nation's veterans' health care system Thursday, officially shouldering the burden of fixing the troubled department after months of sparring with Congress and complaints that his administration had been too slow to act.
Mr. Obama, who signed the bill at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, said the $16 billion in the law to boost benefits and fund measures to speed up appointments at Veterans Administration health clinics is just a first down payment on reform, vowing to continue the fight for better care.
"This will not and cannot be the end of our effort. Implementing this law will take time," the president said. "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."
The president took heat for failing to heed warnings conveyed as far back as his transition to office in 2009 that the Veterans Affairs Department was cooking the books and wait times for appointments at certain facilities couldn't be trusted. Earlier this year, a whistleblower reported that dozens of veterans died while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA site, prompting a number of firings and a scramble to fix the problems.
Lawmakers warned Mr. Obama cannot stay on the sidelines this time.
"In order to prevent history from repeating itself, President Obama must become personally involved in solving VA's many problems," House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said.
While other authors of the bill were at the signing event, Mr. Miller could not attend because he was visiting VA facilities in Texas. Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, applauded the congressman for not even taking a break from his oversight to celebrate the signing of the bill, and said Mr. Obama remained under scrutiny at the law's implementation proceeds.
"The president has no more room to shirk responsibilities or shift blame," Mr. Hegseth said in a statement. "How effective these reforms will be now rests squarely on the shoulders of this administration."
The new law will let veterans seek private care if they have to wait too long for an appointment at the VA or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The bill also gives new Secretary Robert McDonald more power to fire poorly-performing senior executives, though the employees do have a short appeals process.
Veterans advocates hope Mr. Obama's strong words of support for the new legislation are a turning point.
"He still really has been pretty silent on addressing the VA scandal overall," said Lauren Augustine, legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "His speech this morning was encouraging that he's still committed to reforms, but we would still like to see him visit VA facilities and meet with veterans, especially younger veterans, to show he's staying ahead."
California Rep. Jeff Denham, one of two Republicans who attended Thursday's ceremony, agreed that "a big part of this is going to be how the president implements it now."
Officials at the VA have just 90 days to write the details of the law and provide veterans with the "choice card," which will allow them to get care outside the VA. The law also requires several reports to Congress over the next six months on how many veterans are getting outside care and what type of services they are getting.
Mr. Obama said Congress still has more work, too. He asked senators to confirm three of his picks to serve at the VA, noting that one has been awaiting confirmation for more than a year.
"It didn't used to be this hard to just go ahead and get somebody confirmed who is well qualified," Mr. Obama said. "Our veterans don't have time for politics. They need these public servants on the job right now."
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