Signing a bill to reform the scandal-ridden Department of Veterans Affairs, President Barack Obama said any official who covers up problems within the VA should be fired and that whistleblowers must be protected.
The bipartisan bill passed following revelations over recent months that veterans were forced to endure outrageous wait times for medical appointments and evidence that waiting lists were doctored to hide the delays. The scandal prompted Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign; his newly confirmed replacement, Robert McDonald, will have more power to fire VA officials under the new legislation.
“We’re giving the VA secretary more authority to hold people accountable,” Obama said at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virginia, Thursday. “We’ve got to give Bob the authority so that he can move quickly to remove senior executives who fail to meet the standards of conduct and competence that the American people demand. If you engage in an unethical practice, if you cover up a serious problem, you should be fired, period.”
The assertion prompted loud applause from the audience in attendance.
“If you blow the whistle on an unethical practice or bring a problem to the attention of higher-ups, you should be thanked. You should be protected for doing the right thing,” Obama said.
The new law also provides an additional $10 billion in emergency funding to pay for treatments for private health care for veterans if they are unable to get care at a VA facility.
“For veterans who can’t get timely care through the VA, this bill will help them get the care they need someplace else. and this is particularly important for veterans who are in more remote areas, in rural areas,” Obama said. “If you live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or if VA doctors can’t see you within a reasonable amount of time, you’ll have the chance to see a doctor outside the VA system.”
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) in a statement called for Obama to get more personally involved with those affected by the scandal.
“I am pleased President Obama has finally recognized what we have been telling administration officials for years: that VA’s widespread and systemic lack of accountability is jeopardizing the health of veterans and contributing to all of the department’s most pressing problems,” Miller said.
“President Obama must become personally involved in solving VA’s many problems,” Miller continued. “A good place for him to start would be to meet with family members and veterans who have been struck by the VA scandal, order the department to cooperate with the congressional committees investigating VA and force [the Department of Defense] and VA to work together to establish a joint electronic health record integrated across all DoD and VA components.”