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Obama to announce new measures for veterans

08/28/2014

The Hill. August 26, 2014.

President Obama will announce a series of new executive actions designed to help veterans better access mental health services during a speech at the American Legion’s annual convention Tuesday in North Carolina.

The president will also announce a new public-private partnership with some of the nation’s largest banks to assist veterans looking to reduce their mortgage payments and interest rates.

And in a bid to help service members secure jobs after leaving the military, the president will promote new education and employment tools to be deployed by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“All of these announcements, including the new executive actions and progress being made on existing efforts, reflect the commitment of the president and his administration to expanding opportunity for those who sacrifice so much to serve our country: our service members, veterans and their families,” said a White House official.

The new initiatives come just months after a firestorm of controversy over lengthy wait times and systematic mismanagement at VA facilities across the country engulfed the administration and forced the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki. A White House review of the agency found “significant and chronic systemic failures” at the VA, where some veterans died while awaiting medical care.

On Tuesday, the president is expected to tout the impact of a $16.3 billion reform bill signed into law earlier this month. 

The bill allows veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or who have to wait more than 30 days for a medical appointment to seek outside medical care. It also allows VA leadership to more easily remove senior employees found responsible for the mismanagement.

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said at the time he hoped legislation was a “wakeup call” for the president, calling for Obama to get “personally involved in solving VA’s many problems.”

Obama is expected to promote progress on at least some of those fronts. According to the White House, the president will announce that the administration has reduced the disability claims backlog by more than 50 percent from its peak in March 2013, and that veteran homelessness has been reduced by a third. 

He’ll also argue the merits of the series of new executive orders designed to address the mental health of those leaving the military. 

Under the new prerogatives, service members undergoing mental health treatment in the military will be automatically enrolled in a program that matches them with psychiatric care within the VA system. Service members will also be guaranteed access to the same mental health medication they received in the military, regardless of existing VA rules on which drugs are covered.

The VA is also launching a $34.4 million suicide prevention study that will follow 1,800 veterans at 29 VA hospitals across the country. And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will fund a $78.9 million research project to develop neurotechnologies to treat diseases like post-traumatic stress disorder.

The president called for better care for veterans struggling with mental health issues earlier this year after three people were killed at a shooting at Fort Hood. It was the second mass shooting at the base during Obama’s presidency.

“As a nation, we can do more to help counsel those with mental-health issues, to keep firearms out of the hands of those who are having such deep difficulties,” Obama said. “As a military, we must continue to do everything in our power to secure our facilities and spare others this pain.”

On Monday, a soldier at Fort Lee died after shooting herself in the head after barricading herself in a building that houses the Army's Combined Arms Support Command.

Separately, Obama will announce that banks, including Wells Fargo, Citi, Bank of America, Ocwen and Quicken are launching a new program that will make it easier for soldiers to lower their monthly mortgage payments. The administration will also announce an updated version of an online comparison tool designed help soldiers leaving the military make informed decisions about where to use their GI Bill education grants.