By Rebecca Elliott
FORT BELVOIR Va (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama signed a $16.3 billion bill on Thursday designed to provide veterans with more timely medical care and fix problems in the scandal-plagued Veterans Affairs department.
The plan passed Congress last week and aims to address what Obama on Thursday called “outrageous” misconduct at VA hospitals and clinics that included modifying records of delayed care.
“This bill covers a lot of ground – from expanding survivor benefits and educational opportunities, to improving care for veterans struggling with traumatic brain injury and for victims of sexual assault,” Obama said at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, speaking to an audience of service members, veterans, and their families.
The VA was thrust into the spotlight this spring after allegations surfaced that it had covered up the months-long wait times some veterans had to endure before receiving medical care.
Former head of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki resigned in late May as the scandal mounted, and last week the Senate unanimously confirmed former Procter & Gamble Co Chief Executive Officer Robert McDonald.
“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.
He said there was a new “culture of accountability” at the VA and that disciplinary proceedings to address the cover-up were under way.
“We’ve held people accountable for misconduct. Some have already been relieved of their duties, and investigations are ongoing,” Obama said.
The law sets aside $10 billion for veterans to see private doctors if the wait time for an appointment at a VA facility exceeds 30 days, or the nearest facility is located more than 40 miles (64 km) away.
The package also provides funds for the department to hire additional doctors and nurses, as well as open 27 new medical clinics.
“But I want to be clear about something: This will not and cannot be the end of our effort,” added Obama, who has suffered a political fallout over the scandal after his repeated promises to put a priority on the needs of veterans as he wound down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Before signing the bill, Obama briefly addressed the death of Major General Harold Greene, who was killed on Tuesday in Afghanistan, and reasserted his commitment to caring for service members in the “9/11 Generation.”
“Whether or not this country properly repays their heroism, properly repays their patriotism, their service and their sacrifice, that’s in our hands,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Caren Bohan and Lisa Shumaker)