Obama signs $16 billion VA overhaul into law

CNN
Friday, August 8, 2014 - 2:34pm

  Sally Barnes-Breen watched her father die while waiting months just to see a doctor at the dysfunctional Department of Veterans Affairs.

Now she says a bill signed into law on Thursday by President Barack Obama doesn't hold accountable those responsible for what happened.

"They broke all the medical codes, when you swear on your oath," she told CNN of the inability of her father, Navy veteran Thomas Breen, to get an appointment.

"Billions of dollars can't fix the VA broken system," she continued. "What's going to fix (this) is if you criminalize people when they do wrong."

The $16 billion measure doesn't criminalize anybody.

It provides money to build more VA medical facilities and hire more doctors and nurses.

It includes more funds so some veterans can get health care in private facilities.

It also makes it easier to fire or otherwise discipline senior VA officials.

At the bill-signing at Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia, Obama said the package begins the changes needed to keep the nation's promise of caring for its military veterans.

Obama: 'Inexcusable conduct'

"Over the last few months, we've discovered some inexcusable conduct," he said. "This is wrong. It's outrageous."

The law will help the VA system "keep pace with the demand" caused by veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama said.

"This will not and cannot be the end of our efforts," he said, adding that implementing the law "is going to take time."

Along with the increased hospitals and physicians, the measure will allow veterans in remote or rural areas more than 40 miles from facility and those unable to get care "in a reasonable amount of time" to see private doctors, Obama noted.

Congress approved the package just before going home for its August recess.

A CNN investigation that started in November uncovered excessive waits for veterans seeking health care. Subsequent reports revealed secret lists kept by some VA hospitals to hide the waiting periods and other management problems.

Dozens of veterans died while waiting for care.

The crisis led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May as well as congressional investigations.

The FBI has also joined an investigation by the VA inspector general's office. The agency watchdog said Thursday its investigation of wrongdoing such as wait time manipulation had expanded to 92 VA medical facilities across the country.

New VA secretary

Last week, the Senate confirmed Robert McDonald as the agency's new secretary.

The former business executive has promised to swiftly carry out reforms intended to speed up care for returning soldiers entering the VA system and eliminate bogus record-keeping.

Obama noted that the overhaul gives McDonald authority to remove leaders more easily, saying anyone who engaged in unethical practices or covered them up "should be fired, period."

McDonald, who attended the signing, will begin visiting VA hospitals and clinics around the country starting Friday, beginning in Phoenix, Obama said.

Thomas Breen died in November 2013 after being repeatedly denied care at the Phoenix VA medical facility.

A month later came a call from the VA saying he had an appointment scheduled.

"I said, 'Really, you're a little too late, sweetheart,'" Breen's daughter recalled earlier this year in a CNN interview.

CNN's Scott Bronstein and Drew Griffin reported from Arizona, and CNN's Tom Cohen reported and wrote from Washington.

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