President Obama addressed the annual convention of the American Legion in North Carolina with a raft of new proposals for vets. The speech comes as the inspector general at the Veterans Affairs Department is releasing a report on the scandal over phony wait times at the Phoenix VA hospital.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There’s a new development today in the scandal over wait times of Veterans Affairs health centers. The VA’s Inspector General has released a long-awaited report. It could not prove that any veterans died because of long waits at the Phoenix health center, but the report found big problems which extend well beyond Phoenix. It says VA hospitals across the nation fake data on wait times.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A short time before the report was made public, President Obama addressed the scandal in a speech to the American Legion.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I want to know directly from me is that we’re focused on this at the highest levels. We are going to get to the bottom of these problems. We’re going to fix what is wrong. We’re going to do right by you, and we are going to do right by your families. And that is a solemn pledge and commitment that I’m making to you here.
BLOCK: In a moment, we’ll talk with a top official at the VA, but first NPR’s Quil Lawrence, who covers veteran’s issues. And he joins me now to talk about the findings of the Inspector General’s report. And Quil, the initial allegation was that 40 people had died waiting for care at the Phoenix VA. This report did not conclude that was the case. What did it say?
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Well, it said it was unable to conclusively say these delays with the causes of death. And some of the patients they – the cases they looked into were incurable. So the delay wouldn’t have made much for difference. But for example, there’s one case – a man in his sixties. He had been homeless. He had emphysema. He died in a private hospital. So he was getting care, just not at the VA. But the Phoenix VA didn’t call with his appointment until three months after he died. Others seemed just like pure luck. A man in his mid-fifties – he had skin lesions. After 10 months, the VA finally tested those – found out they were benign, but they could’ve been malignant skin cancer.
BLOCK: And it seems clear from the report Quil, that even if the wait times couldn’t be proven to cause deaths, the waits definitely had an effect on the quality of care.
LAWRENCE: Right. Another example – a veteran who had lung cancer – he was not going to get better, but he could’ve gotten palliative care much sooner, and that is big issue with an aging veterans population. The VA often says, and President Obama said again today, that VA has very good care once people get access to it. But what this report shows is that delayed care really is bad care.
BLOCK: Well, what has the reaction been from veterans groups to this report today?
LAWRENCE: Mostly they’re saying that it substantiates what they’ve been talking about for years. So not really a surprise, bit it vindicates their complaints.
BLOCK: And Quil, we heard President Obama speaking today about this issue. He promised to do better, offered a range of actions to help veterans – everything from access to healthcare, to jobs and education. What are the expectations from veterans groups about whether those will make a difference?
LAWRENCE: Many of these are problems they’ve been talking about for a long time. For example, the President said there will be a better transition from active duty care to VA care. In the past, there could be this dangerous gap where vets maybe would have trouble getting the prescription meds that they had been on while their active duty – in that time before they got enrolled in VA care. But they’ve been talking about making that a seamless transition for a decade, and they’ve spent $1 billion trying. So we’re waiting to see if they’ll do it this time. The President also announced research on mental health – some new ways to help make sure vets get their entitled to. But the vets groups are just waiting to see if there’s action to follow these promises.
BLOCK: OK, NPR’s Quil Lawrence. Quil, thanks very much.
LAWRENCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.