After a year of horrific headlines about substandard and sometimes deadly lapses in care at Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country, veterans advocacy groups were hoping for a little love from President Obama during this week's State of the Union speech. But they were left disappointed.
The president touched on a cornucopia of subjects during his speech , from putting an astronaut on Mars to net neutrality, but any mention of the Department of Veterans Affairs was notably absent. Despite the nationwide scandal that engulfed the VA last year, the department only got a passing mention in Obama's hour-long speech. In the middle of the speech's sole paragraph dedicated to veterans, most of which was about the administration's work on its veteran jobs programs, Obama said his administration is "slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need."
Concerned Veterans for America, a veterans advocacy group, was understandably upset by the oversight. In an interview this week, the group's legislative and political director Daniel Caldwell said that the sheer size of the VA and scope of the problems demanded some mention in the president's annual speech. "Put aside the fact that this involves veterans, the VA is the second-largest government agency aside from Department of Defense," he said. "It has 300,000 employees, and it's seriously flawed. From a pure management perspective, this is not something the president should ignore."
Republican Congressman Jeff Miller, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, agreed, saying in a statement that presidential leverage was needed to spur real reform at the VA. "Changing the culture at VA is a monumental task, and without the president leading by example it will be next to impossible," Miller wrote.
There were early indications that the VA scandal wouldn't get any play in the White House's State of the Union blitz this week. Earlier this month, as he previewed his new proposals, Obama riled veterans groups when he didn't visit a VA hospital in Phoenix on a trip to the area, despite passing right by it in the presidential motorcade.
The hospital was at the center of the scandal last year, after several whistleblowers came forward alleging that it was using secret wait lists to hide the long, sometimes fatal delays faced by veterans trying to schedule appointments. An internal audit by the agency's Inspector General revealed that VA hospitals across the country used similar tactics to hide wait times, and that employees who tried to blow the whistle on the practice faced retaliation from their bosses. As many as 40 patients have reportedly died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital.
The public, however, hasn't forgotten about the controversy. A survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center found the VA's favorability among Americans has slipped to 52 percent, down from 68 percent before the scandal first broke.
In May, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned over the controversy, and several top executives at the agency have been fired since his replacement, Robert McDonald, took over. The department claims it has cut appointment backlogs and taken other steps to improve accountability and protect whistleblowers.
But the agency is far from out of the woods. Last week, the VA launched investigations into one of its hospitals in Wisconsin in response to reports that doctors there are handing out opiates like candy to patients. And on Tuesday, the agency announced it will take new steps to offer relief to about 25 employees who faced retaliation after reporting misconduct by senior officials.
In the lead-up to this week's speech this week, several members of Congress also called on Obama to address mental health issues facing veterans. Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, invited widow Joanna Eldridge, whose Marine husband committed suicide in 2013, to be his guest Tuesday night. "With Joanna in the audience and veterans and their families across the country listening at home, I urge the president to address this crisis and couple it with a call for action," the Senator said in a statement.
A bill aimed at preventing veteran suicides is currently moving through Congress.
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