Still, Obama stressed that more work needs to be done to fix the agency, contending the new law would provide much-needed resources to begin making major changes.
Speaking at an event at Fort Belvoir, Va., before signing the bill, Obama called the misconduct at the department uncovered over the past year and a half “inexcusable” and thanked lawmakers such as Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, for their work in bringing to light gross mismanagement at health care facilities around the country.
The president said passage of the $16.3 billion bill, which came together this summer in a rare moment of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, would address layers of problems at the VA.
In series of reports chronicled the stories of veterans who died while waiting for appointments and the practices of employees trying to cover up wait-times with accounting gimmicks. The Washington Examiner received the American Legion’s Fourth Estate Award for its five-part series, “Making America's Heroes Wait,” published in early 2013.
The reports and subsequent public outcry led to the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Obama said the new law would help veterans get timely care, even if the department is unable to meet their needs right away, by allowing them to use outside facilities.
The bill provides $10 billion in emergency spending over three years to pay private doctors and other health professionals to care for qualifying veterans who can’t get timely appointments at VA hospitals or clinics or who live more than 40 miles away from one.
“No veteran should have to wait to receive the benefits they have earned,” Obama said.
The bill would also provide $5 billion to hire thousands of doctors, nurses and other health professionals and $1.3 billion to open 27 new VA clinics across the country so the department can keep pace with rising demand as more veterans come home from Afghanistan this year.
Addressing reports of bonuses awarded to agency officials who cooked the books, the law would give the VA secretary more authority to hold people accountable. It also would prevent whistleblowers from being punished or demoted.
“If you cover up a significant problem, you should be fired, period,” Obama said. “If you blow the whistle, you should be thanked – you should be protected for doing the right thing. You shouldn’t be punished.”
This story is based in part on wire reports.