Obama Calls For More Veterans Affairs Spending At VFW Convention

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President Obama addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Pittsburgh Tuesday, pushing for increased spending at the VA, as the department is locked in an impasse with Congress over how to address a budget shortfall.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

When President Obama honored the five service members killed in Chattanooga, he was speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Pittsburgh. It was a wide-ranging speech in which the president also urged Congress to increase the Veterans Affairs budget. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: President Obama ran through his achievements campaign-style, from killing al-Qaida leaders to wider health care coverage. Then he turned to a key topic for the audience of mostly older war veterans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Today, the VA is handling millions more appointments inside and outside the VA and delivering more care. On average, veterans are waiting just a few days for an appointment, and that's all good news. Veterans continue to tell us that once they get through the door, the care is often very good.

LAWRENCE: But Obama acknowledged that even after a scandal removed VA senior leadership a year ago, reform has been uneven as veterans get older and new vets return from war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: Our work is not done. We still have a big challenge. Even with all these new resources, the VA's still struggling to keep up with the surge of veterans who are seeking care.

LAWRENCE: That the VA is struggling is one point of universal agreement. Investigations continue of fake data about wait times. Revelations about mismanagement and skyrocketing construction costs roll out weekly. There's less agreement about how to fix it. VA secretary Bob McDonald, who also spoke at the VFW convention, said those who would like to privatize health care, including vets care, are taking the debate in Congress to a bad place.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB MCDONALD: A place where the needs of veterans are secondary to ideology, scoring political points and shortsighted budget policies, a place where VA is set up to fail. And veterans who have sacrificed so much for much nobler purposes are the ones left suffering.

LAWRENCE: Obama and McDonald urged Congress to allow the VA to spend money as it sees fit. But critics say the VA doesn't need more leeway. It needs oversight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF MILLER: Are you going to stand with the veterans or the bureaucrats?

LAWRENCE: Jeff Miller, Republican chairman of the House Vets Affairs Committee, lost his usually measured tone at a hearing last week. He slammed the VA for firing a mere handful of staff during a full year of scandals that hurt veterans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILLER: There's some rotten people that work in the department that need to be fired, not protected. They can't budget right. They can't allocate dollars right. They can't do their job right. And I am not going to protect poor-performing employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

LAWRENCE: Miller points to a $3 billion budget shortfall this year that the VA only just announced nine months into the fiscal year. Without more money from Congress, VA says some vets hospitals could shut down in August. Today, Miller released a statement saying that despite what he called the VA's lack of transparency, Congress would find a way to keep the department fully funded through the end of the year. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.