WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama Thursday signed into law the Veterans' Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014 during a ceremony at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
The bill provides the Veterans Affairs Department with additional resources to improve access and quality of care for veterans.
The impetus for the act came from revelations of "inexcusable misconduct" at some VA health care facilities, the president said. Some VA hospitals were cooking the books, and veterans were denied care they had earned. "This is wrong," the president said. "It's outrageous."
The act helps VA to fix these problems, the president said. "We've already taken the first steps to change the way the VA does business," he added. "We've held people accountable for misconduct. Some have already been relieved of their duties, and investigations are ongoing."
VA also has contacted more than 215,000 veterans to ensure they are getting off waiting lists and into clinics for medical care.
While the act also provides for expanding survivor benefits and educational opportunities and improving care for veterans struggling with traumatic brain injury and for victims of sexual assault, the president said, he concentrated on getting veterans access to needed medical care.
The act boosts the VA budget and will allow the organization to hire more doctors, nurses and staff. "As a new generation of veterans returns home from war and transitions into civilian life," Obama said, "we have to make sure the VA system can keep pace with that new demand."
And for veterans who cannot get timely care through VA, the act allows them to get that care somewhere else. "This is particularly important for veterans who are in more remote areas and rural areas," Obama said. Essentially, this allows veterans living more than 40 miles from a VA facility, or those for whom a VA doctor is not available, to use health care providers outside the VA system.
The act also gives the secretary of Veterans Affairs -- now Robert A. McDonald -- the authority to hold people accountable.
"If you engage in an unethical practice, if you cover up a serious problem, you should be fired, period," the president said. "It shouldn't be that difficult. 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. You shouldn't be ignored, and you certainly shouldn't be punished."
Caring for veterans is a solemn obligation of the country, "because in more than a decade of war, today's men and women in uniform, ... you've met every mission we've asked of you," the president said.
"Today," he added, "our troops continue to serve and risk their lives in Afghanistan. It continues to be a difficult and dangerous mission, as we were tragically reminded again this week in the attack that injured a number of our coalition troops and took the life of a dedicated American soldier, Maj. Gen. Harold Greene."