Obama describes ‘sacred covenant’ to veterans at Atlanta convention

In his last formal address to the nation’s veterans, President Barack Obama said Monday in Atlanta that the U.S. has improved health care services for former military members, but he acknowledged that much work remains for his successor to restore confidence in the troubled system.

Speaking to a Disabled American Veterans conference, Obama highlighted the moves by the Department of Veterans Affairs to hire more doctors and open more clinics. He was greeted warmly by the hundreds of ex-military members, who gave him a standing ovation.

“Our commitment to our veterans is a sacred covenant. And I don’t use those words lightly,” he said. “It is sacred because there’s no more solemn request than to ask someone to risk their life, to be ready to give their life on our behalf.”

The president spoke about increasing funding for veterans, by more than 85 percent if his latest proposal goes through; making deep cuts in the backlog of disability claims; creating easier ways to apply for care, including using smartphones; and adding services for the catastrophically disabled.

Obama has tried to shift the conversation beyond the scandals over long wait times for veterans seeking medical treatment that led to the embarrassing ouster of his first veterans affairs secretary, retired Gen. Eric Shinseki.

Republican Donald Trump has made an overhaul of the VA one of his signature campaign proposals, vowing to make the agency’s health care system more privatized. Democrat Hillary Clinton, too, has promised to overhaul the agency and bring more transparency.

Both are trying to earn the votes of the nearly 21 million veterans in the U.S., an influential bloc in states such as Georgia with several military bases and a heavy presence of former soldiers. An estimated 750,000 veterans live in the Peach State, about 8 percent of Georgia’s total population.

Georgia’s senior U.S. senator, Johnny Isakson, has been one of the most prominent Republican critics of the Obama administration’s handling of veterans health care. The chairman of the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee, Isakson said during a Sunday panel discussion that senior VA executives need to be held more accountable.

“There’s got to be reform at the VA,” Isakson said, adding: “One of the problems that VA leadership has had is the inability to affect change at the agency and have the type of accountability of the agency’s management that they really need.”

He is pushing legislation, known as the “Veterans First Act,” that would make it easier for the VA to fire bad employees, create a new whistleblower protection office and launch programs to help the agency whittle down its backlog of veteran disability claims. The legislation’s fate is uncertain in this bitter, unpredictable election year.

Mike Ehrlich, a Vietnam War veteran who retired from the Navy Reserve, said there’s no easy answer.

“I’ve got mixed emotions. I’ve got a friend from Miami fighting cancer who is getting amazing service. And I have a son who is not confident,” said Ehrlich, who lives in Big Canoe. “But I’m very concerned. I don’t know what can be done, though — if I was that smart, I’d be running for president.”

A thinly veiled rebuke

Obama’s visit Monday came as Trump was targeted with more criticism for his remarks belittling the family of a slain Muslim U.S. soldier, and the president made a thinly veiled rebuke of the Republican nominee’s comments without mentioning his name.

“No one has given more for our freedom and our security than our Gold Star families,” Obama said. “Our Gold Star families have made a sacrifice that most of us cannot even begin to imagine. We have to do whatever we can for those families and honor them and be humbled by them.”

The group reacted with strong applause.

Obama also said he was “pretty tired of some folks trash-talking” the military and defended the strategic partnership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Trump has criticized in the past.

As if to underscore his rebuke of Trump, he traveled shortly after the event to a fundraiser for Clinton at the northwest Atlanta home of business executive Andy Prozes, the former CEO of LexisNexis Group, and Laura Heery, an architect and strategist. About 30 people attended the event, which cost more than $33,000 to attend.

In his address, Obama said more veterans are landing better jobs and health care services are improving. He touted the half a million veterans who voluntarily gave blood samples and other health data for a new health care database. And he said homelessness among veterans has been cut nearly in half, though he set a goal during his election campaign to reduce it to zero by 2015.

But Obama, who leaves office in January, said his successor must improve mental health care for veterans and that the nation made a “sacred covenant” to guarantee ex-military members health care benefits they earned while serving.

And he said lawmakers must continue to reduce the stubborn backlog of disability claims. The caseload has been reduced from more than 600,000 three years ago to 80,000 claims now, according to the White House, though there are still some 450,000 appeals pending and veterans wait an average of three years for a decision.

“When too many veterans still aren’t getting the care that they need, we all have to be outraged,” Obama said. “We all have to do better. And when 20 veterans a day are taking their own lives — that is a national tragedy. We all have to do better.”

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