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President Obama in Charlotte unveils initiatives to help veterans

By Jim Morrill And Jim Kuhnhenn
jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/26/13/13/2cYE5.Em.138.jpeg|347
    SAUL LOEB - AFP/Getty Images
    US President Barack Obama speaks at the American Legion's 96th National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, August 26, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/26/13/12/Pq6RZ.Em.138.jpeg|223
    SAUL LOEB - AFP/Getty Images
    US President Barack Obama speaks at the American Legion's 96th National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, August 26, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/26/12/57/1mDWx8.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Charles Dharapak - AP
    President Barack Obama takes the stage before speaking about veterans issues at the American Legion’s 96th National Convention at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Three months after a veterans' health care scandal rocked his administration, President Barack Obama is taking executive action to improve the mental well-being of veterans. The president was to announce his initiatives during an appearance before the American Legion National Convention that is fraught with midterm politics. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/25/21/13/R0cFB.Em.138.jpeg|212
    David T. Foster, III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    George C. Cade of Fayetteville, NC speaks with Verna Jones, The American Legion Veterans Affairs Director, about his experiences with the Department of Veteran Affairs during a Town Hall session of the 96th American Legion National Convention on Monday, August 25, 2014.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/07/23/19/15AU7r.Em.138.JPG|320
    Charles Dharapak - AP
    President Barack Obama speaks in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Calling it a “moral obligation,” President Barack Obama Tuesday outlined steps to help veterans and restore trust damaged by a series of “outrageous and inexcusable” problems at the veterans administration.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of these problems,” he told delegates to the American Legion convention in Charlotte. “We’re going to fix what’s wrong. We’re going to do right by you. We’re going to do right by your families. And that is a solemn pledge.”

Speaking at the Charlotte Convention Center, Obama announced 19 executive actions he would take on behalf of veterans.

The president spoke during a whirlwind visit to Charlotte. He left just before 1:30 p.m. after a visit that lasted around two hours.

When Air Force One landed, Obama was greeted by Senators Kay Hagan, a Democrat, and Richard Burr, a Republican, as well as veterans and a crowd of several dozen onlookers, before getting into a limousine.

The president’s address to the legionnaires Tuesday in Charlotte is the latest administration response to the health care lapses that led to the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in May.

“They were there for America. Now we need to be there for them,” Obama told the crowd of veterans. He touted a “new culture of accountability” at the VA backed up by enhanced power to get rid of senior officials who don’t perform.

Of the problems with record-keeping and falsified wait times for those seeking treatment at the VA, Obama said “We’re focused on these at the highest levels.”

Obama also touted economic growth and said the U.S. remains committed to opposing the Islamic State, the militant group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Obama announced administration steps to strengthen access to mental health care by members of the military, to improve the transition for those leaving the military from care administered by the Defense Department to that run by Veterans Affairs, and to foster suicide prevention and better treatments for post-traumatic stress syndrome.

For Obama, however, the visit to North Carolina has a heavy political subtext as well. The state’s Democratic senator, Hagan, is in a difficult re-election race and Obama is not popular in the state. Hagan was scheduled to speak to the American Legion too, but her spokeswoman declined to say whether she would appear on stage with the president.

The campaign of Hagan’s Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, accused Hagan of being a “rubber stamp” for Obama and “compliant with the administration’s failure to provide our veterans with the health care that they deserve.”

Obama faced an audience that polls have shown to be skeptical. In a July Associated Press-GfK poll, Obama’s approval rating among veterans and veterans’ households lagged behind his overall approval rating at just 33 percent, with 66 percent disapproving.

Eager to distance herself from the president, Hagan issued a statement Friday ahead of the Legion convention saying the administration “has not yet done enough to earn the lasting trust of our veterans.”

Obama’s address to the veterans also comes as his administration considers whether to confront Islamic State militants by taking military action against them in Syria. U.S. officials said Monday that Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria, and a third said they have already begun, a move that could pave the way for U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State militant targets in that country.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama was not likely to offer any details about his policy in the region.

Earlier this month, Obama signed a $16.3 billion law aimed at easing the long waits that tens of thousands of military veterans had endured to get medical care.

The law, a product of rare bipartisanship in the House and Senate, followed reports of veterans dying while awaiting appointments to see VA doctors and of a widespread practice of employees covering up months-long wait times for appointments. In some cases, employees received bonuses based on falsified records.

The VA says investigators have found no proof that delays in care caused any deaths at a VA hospital in Phoenix.

Moving beyond the steps included in the law, the White House said Obama intended to take executive actions that:

• Automatically enroll military personnel who are receiving care for mental health conditions and are leaving the service in a program that transfers them to a new care team in the VA.

• Undertake a study designed to detect whether people show signs of being vulnerable to suicide or post-traumatic stress syndrome.

• Spends $34.4 million in a VA suicide prevention study and about $80 million on a program to treat diseases, including post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The White House says Obama also will announce a partnership with lenders such as Wells Fargo Bank, CitiMortgage, Bank of America, Ocwen Loan Servicing and Quicken Loans to make it easier for active-duty service members to obtain mortgage interest rate reductions.

Observer staff writers Ely Portillo, Bruce Henderson and Erin Bacon contributed

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