President Obama announced new mental health initiatives during the American Legion national convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Aug. 26, 2014.

President Obama announced new mental health initiatives during the American Legion national convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Aug. 26, 2014. Chuck Burton/Associated Press

How Obama Plans to Fix Veterans’ Mental Health Care

The White House boasts progress on improving services, but Republicans aren’t impressed.

President Obama on Tuesday announced a series of reforms aimed at improving the administration and access of veterans’ benefits, focusing primarily on mental health initiatives.

At a speech at the American Legion convention in North Carolina, Obama touted the progress his administration has made in boosting funding to the Veterans Affairs Department, reducing the disability claims backlog and coordinating with the private sector to help veterans establish civilian careers after leaving military service. He acknowledged, however, that progress is far from complete and pledged his commitment to seeing the work through.

In particular, failures in mental health care have contributed to ongoing problems, Obama said. On Tuesday, VA and the Defense Department jointly unveiled 19 executive actions they are taking, at Obama’s direction, to boost psychological care for veterans.

The measures aim to help troops make the transition from military health care to VA or civilian care through better coordination, the inTransition program and the uninterrupted delivery of mental health medications.

Defense will “do what it can under its authority” to ensure TRICARE offers parity care for mental and physical health ailments. That includes eliminating quantitative limits for mental health care. In addition, the Pentagon will begin providing mental health services to troops wherever they are, even when they’re deployed. Obama also discussed a plan to expand peer-to-peer care, calling the program “veterans counseling veterans.”

Defense announced several initiatives to combat and treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including a $79 million funding boost for a program that uses brain chips to treat the injury. Obama said his administration will enhance mental health awareness campaigns, improve the recognition of warning signs for mental health problems and called on the public at large to pitch in.

“They were there for America,” Obama said of the nation’s veterans, “we need to be there for them.” He added: “Only 1 percent of Americans are fighting our wars, but 100 percent of Americans benefit from that 1 percent.”

Obama announced several initiatives to prevent veteran suicides, including one to dispose of unwanted medications and a firearm safety program. VA is working to identify communities with large veteran populations that need health facilities.

The president also plugged a VA reform bill he recently signed into law, which gave more veterans access to private care and provided funding for new VA facilities. He said the bill -- in conjunction with his executive actions -- would change the culture at VA, noting in particular a provision that would make it easier to fire senior executives at the agency.

“If you cover up a problem, you should be and will be fired,” Obama said. He added, in a message to rank-and-file VA employees, if you blow the whistle on management malfeasance “you shouldn’t be punished, you should be protected.”

Despite the initiatives and reforms, Obama’s political foes were critical of the administration’s policies.

“President Obama’s actions today fall far short of what’s needed to regain the trust of America’s veterans,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “VA’s problems festered because administration officials ignored or denied the department’s challenges at every turn.”

The Republican Party put out a fact sheet detailing the ways Obama has, in their estimation, failed to deliver on his promises as a candidate, saying the VA throughout his presidency “has been nothing short of a disaster.”