CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Three months after a veterans’ health care scandal rocked his administration, President Barack Obama is taking executive action to improve the mental well-being of veterans. The president was to announce his initiatives during an appearance before the American Legion National Convention that is fraught with midterm politics.
The president’s address to the legionnaires Tuesday in Charlotte, North Carolina, is the latest administration response to the health care lapses that led to the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in May.
The White House says Obama will announce administration steps to strengthen access to mental health care by members of the military, to improve the transition for those leaving the military from care administered by the Defense Department to that run by Veterans Affairs, and to foster suicide prevention and better treatments for post-traumatic stress syndrome.
For Obama, however, the visit to North Carolina has a heavy political subtext as well. The state’s Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, is in a difficult re-election race and Obama is not popular in the state.
Still, while some other Democratic candidates have shied away from photo ops with the president, Hagan greeted Obama as he stepped off Air Force One and the president gave her a peck on the cheek. Hagan was scheduled to speak to the American Legion too, but her spokeswoman declined to say whether she would appear on stage with the president.
The campaign of Hagan’s Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, accused Hagan of being a “rubber stamp” for Obama and “compliant with the administration’s failure to provide our veterans with the health care that they deserve.”
Eager to distance herself from the president, Hagan issued a statement Friday ahead of the Legion convention saying the administration “has not yet done enough to earn the lasting trust of our veterans.”
Obama press secretary Josh Earnest responded that Hagan is an “independent voice.”
“She hasn’t always agreed with President Obama on a range of issues, but Senator Hagan has demonstrated that she is a dedicated advocate on behalf of veterans,” he told reporters traveling Aboard Air Force One to North Carolina.
Obama also could face a skeptical audience for his speech. In a July Associated Press-GfK poll, Obama’s approval rating among veterans and veterans’ households lagged behind his overall approval rating at just 33 percent, with 66 percent disapproving.
Obama’s address to the veterans also comes as his administration considers whether to confront Islamic State militants by taking military action against them in Syria. U.S. officials said Monday that Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria, and a third said they have already begun, a move that could pave the way for U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State militant targets in that country.
Earnest said Obama was not likely to offer any details about his policy in the region.
Earlier this month, Obama signed a $16.3 billion law aimed at easing the long waits that tens of thousands of military veterans had endured to get medical care.
The law, a product of rare bipartisanship in the House and Senate, followed reports of veterans dying while awaiting appointments to see VA doctors and of a widespread practice of employees covering up months-long wait times for appointments. In some cases, employees received bonuses based on falsified records.
The VA says investigators have found no proof that delays in care caused any deaths at a VA hospital in Phoenix.
Moving beyond the steps included in the law, the White House said Obama intended to take executive actions that:
• Automatically enroll military personnel who are receiving care for mental health conditions and are leaving the service in a program that transfers them to a new care team in the VA.
• Undertake a study designed to detect whether people show signs of being vulnerable to suicide or post-traumatic stress syndrome.
• Spends $34.4 million in a VA suicide prevention study and about $80 million on a program to treat diseases, including post-traumatic stress syndrome.
The White House says Obama also will announce a partnership with lenders such as Wells Fargo Bank, CitiMortgage, Bank of America, Ocwen Loan Servicing and Quicken Loans to make it easier for active-duty service members to obtain mortgage interest rate reductions.