WASHINGTON — In what he called "my final address to our nation's veterans as president," Barack Obama declared Monday that the nation had a "sacred covenant" with its veterans to ensure they receive the health care, support and benefits they need and to fix broken services Obama paid tribute to the nation's wounded warriors and its Gold Star families during the speech at the Disabled American Veterans annual convention in Atlanta. He recapped achievements during his eight years in office – from reducing homelessness by nearly 50 percent to increasing health care for millions of veterans. But he also spoke plainly about scandals that have wracked the Department of Veterans Affairs during his two terms – in particular the data manipulation to hide long wait lists for doctor appointments, benefits claims that were destroyed or left to languish in bins by overwhelmed staff and retaliation against whistleblowers. Obama said that neither he nor VA Secretary Bob McDonald were satisfied with the efforts to fix the problems and vowed that transforming the VA and holding people accountable would continue. "Long wait times, veterans denied care, people manipulating the books – inexcusable," Obama said to loud applause at the annual convention. The nation's commitment to veterans is a sacred covenant, he said. Sacred, because of the solemn request to ask someone to risk their life "on our behalf" and a covenant, because in return, America owes its veterans. "We pledged to take care of you and your families when you come home," he said. "That's a sacred covenant. It's a solemn promise and it is binding. And upholding it is a moral imperative." About 200,000 service members become veterans every year. Obama outlined where services for veterans had improved and where they went wrong. He also highlighted five areas in which improvements need to continue: access to health care, more resources, access to claims, homelessness and veterans transitioning to the civilian workforce. But while the president's address was met with applause inside the convention, some veterans' advocates slammed it for touting successes while veterans face so many problems and the VA continues to come under fire for a lack of accountability. "There has been some progress but this is not time for the president to celebrate success," Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement. "The VA scandal was predictable, preventable and many of the core issues still remain two years later." Rieckhoff said Obama's speech was "tone deaf" and that the president needed to "be candid in acknowledging the failures during his presidency and turning the corner now." He called on Obama to press for and institute "true reform" at the VA. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, also charged that Obama had sugarcoated the problems. He said VA wait time data was "still misleading," whistleblower retaliation is "still a major problem" and poor performance was continuing despite a VA budget that has nearly quadrupled since 2001. "The fact is, VA will never be fixed until we have a president who is dedicated to solving the department's No. 1 problem – its widespread and pervasive lack of accountability," Miller said in a statement. "Until then, VA's issues will continue while veterans pay the price." In his address, Obama said he has increased funding for veterans by more than 85 percent since he's been in office. But he warned the Republicans in Congress have threatened to cut that and urged them to pass the budget.
He called on veterans to keep pressuring Congress to reform the "broken" claims appeals process. He said more than 2 million vets who didn't have benefits now do, but there are still more waiting for care. Thousands of doctors, nurses, clinicians, mental health care providers have been hired. Funding for mental health care was increased more than 75 percent – billions of dollars, he said. But the demand also keeps growing. "When too many veterans are still not receiving the care that they need, we all have to be outraged," he said. He also argued that while the VA needs to be fixed, it cannot be privatized. "Don't destroy VA health care," he said to huge applause. "Fix it. But don't break our covenant with our veterans." Ahead of his speech Monday, the secretaries of the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development held a telephone news conference, announcing a dual-pronged milestone: Veterans homelessness has been reduced by 47 percent since 2010, but that's still 50 percent more than the administration's goal to end the plight by 2015. In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama, along with Jill Biden, launched a five-year program to end veterans' homelessness. The program drew in mayors and governors, nonprofits and government institutions. HUD said it has housed to date about 114,000 homeless veterans, working with landlords and veteran-housing vouchers and coordinating with VA health care and supportive services. HUD estimates that fewer than 40,000 veterans were homeless on any given night in January 2016, 47 percent less than in 2010. Of those, just 13,000 were living in the streets, a 56 percent drop in six years. Since 2010, VA and HUD programs have assisted more than 360,000 veterans get into housing or avoid becoming homeless, according to the White House. McDonald said veterans homelessness fell 17 percent from January 2015 to January 2016, the largest reduction of any year and quadruple the drop of a year earlier. He acknowledged that the administration did not reach its goal to eradicate homelessness. "Effective zero continues to be the goal and we are going to work as hard as we can to continually bend that curve down," he said. "I've spent a lot of time on the streets and I've spent a lot of time in shelters with veterans and I can tell you any one life we save is worth saving and is a worthy goal." Obama called veterans homelessness a travesty and vowed that efforts to house them would not stop until every veteran has a home. But Rieckhoff said that the announcement about the reduction in homelessness only highlighted the administration's failures. "The truth is that the president missed his own goal of zero homeless veterans by 2015," Reickhoff said. "He has also failed to reach his goal of ending the VA backlog by the beginning of 2016 – which still stands at over 70,000 today. "VA funding increases are extremely helpful," he added. "But as we've seen over the last few years as funding has repeatedly increased, funding alone will not fix the VA."