President Barack Obama pledged a new “culture of accountability” for the Department of Veterans Affairs during his address to the American Legion in Charlotte, N.C. Tuesday.
The president announced 19 executive reforms in response to controversy surrounding allegations that VA clinics covered up treatment delays. The reforms included improving employment opportunities for veterans, providing them better access to healthcare and making it easier for them to get loans.
Calling the delays in treatment of veterans at VA hospitals “inexcusable,” Obama assured the audience that incompetent senior officials will be removed—a statement met with general applause.
“What we’ve come to learn is that the conduct we’ve seen at too many facilities…is outrageous,” Obama stated. “I want you to know, directly from me, that we’re focused on this at the highest level.”
Obama also said the White House will continue its endeavors to end veteran homelessness, announcing that the number of homeless veterans has dropped by 25,000, or approximately one-third, since 2010.
The president outlined new measures to assist veterans with loans and student debt. Interest on federal student loans will be set at 6 percent for veterans, and a new partnership with American banks will help simplify the process to obtain low interest rates for mortgages.
The White House will also take further steps to help veterans find employment and transition back to civilian life.
“If you were a medic in a warzone, you shouldn’t have to take Nursing 101,” Obama said.
He added that veteran unemployment is currently lower than the national average, whereas it had been higher several years ago.
The president’s remarks follow his signing of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act earlier this month. The overwhelmingly bipartisan measure seeks to overhaul the VA system by giving the Secretary of the VA the authority to remove incompetent senior executives.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Duke Graduate School '76, resigned in May amid a growing scandal related to wait times at VA hospitals. Following the revelation that as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA hospital, calls for Shinseki's firing came from several members of Congress and high-profile veterans—including American Legion president Daniel Dellinger, who was present at Tuesday's address. Shinseki's replacement, Robert McDonald, who served on the Board of Visitors for the Fuqua School of Business from 2005-2012, was approved by the Senate in July.
"We are going to fix what is wrong, we are going to do right by you, we are going to do right by your families," Obama said of the leadership change. "That is a solemn pledge and commitment I'm making to you here."
Obama also discussed U.S. foreign policy—focusing on the departure of American troops from Iraq and continued surveillance flights over Syria as part of a “broader strategy.”
While the president maintained that the U.S. would not entangle itself in foreign military conflicts in the future without the support of other countries, he vowed to seek justice against the “barbaric terrorists” of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria for the death of American journalist James Foley. Foley was beheaded by ISIS last week, allegedly in retaliation for U.S. air strikes.
“Our message to anyone who harms our people is so—America does not forget,” he said. “Our reach is long, we are patient.”
Following Obama's remarks, McDonald took the stage to speak about his plans for reform.
Both of North Carolina's senators—Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Kay Hagan—were present for Tuesday's speeches.