Obama tells veterans VA changes mean health care is ‘top priority’

     President Barack Obama shares a laugh with a veteran following his address at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention at the David Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Tuesday. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

    President Barack Obama shares a laugh with a veteran following his address at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention at the David Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Tuesday. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

    President Barack Obama on Tuesday called the Legionella-related deaths of six veterans at a Pittsburgh VA hospital a “tragedy.”

    “Whenever there are any missteps, there is no excuse,” Obama told thousands of veterans at the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in downtown Pittsburgh.

    “Our hearts go out the families of those who lost loved ones, and know there is new leadership now at the Pittsburgh VA. The safety measures now in place are some of the strongest in the nation, and patient safety is a top priority at VA hospitals because we have to prevent anything like that from ever happening again.”

    Health care was a major theme of Obama’s speech, which is unsurprising after persistent problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, including long waitlists for care and disability claims. Last week, the VA said it is unable to count how many veterans died while waiting to sign up for health care, and said it may have to close some hospitals if Congress does not address a $2.5 billion shortfall.

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    Obama said that while significant progress has been made at the troubled agency, “We’ve got to acknowledge our work is not done. We still have a big challenge” to keep up with the surge in veterans seeking care.

    “We’re not going to let up,” he promised.

    He also addressed mental health care, saying it was important to fully implement a veteran suicide prevention bill he signed into law back in February.

    “We’ve got to make good on the promise of the Clay Hunt Act, improving care for veterans with post-traumatic stress, increasing outreach and peer support, and recruiting more psychiatrists and mental health counselors,” Obama said. “We’ve got to make sure veterans who are already struggling don’t fall through the cracks. And we’ve got to end the stigma and shame around mental health once and for all.”

    Tara Rivers of Jackson, Mississippi, served in the Army in Afghanistan from 2010-11, and said she appreciated Obama’s attention to mental health services, particularly for the post-9/11 generation of veterans.

    “In my era … a lot of our veterans are known for PTSD and having that program in place helps them … learn how to cope,” River said.

    Yet Republicans were unimpressed.

    Cory Fritz, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said Obama still lacked a plan to change the culture at the VA. Republicans have complained loudly that more VA officials weren’t fired in the wake of last year’s scandal.

    “Instead of more hollow platitudes, the president needs to join House Republicans in working to deliver real accountability and reform for our veterans,” Fritz said.

    Obama said he was happy to work with Republicans on boosting VA funding and said he would veto any budget that locked in sequester cuts.

    Obama also spent a good amount of time on foreign policy, brushing off his “chest-beating” critics who oppose the Iran nuclear deal. He said some of the same people criticizing the deal were the ones who rushed the U.S. into an ill-fated war in Iraq.

    He called his approach “strong and principled diplomacy.”

    “I believe that sending our sons and daughters into harm’s way must always be a last resort and that before we put our lives on the line, we should exhaust every alternative,” Obama said. “That’s what we owe our troops. That is strength and that is American leadership.”

    Obama told the audience of veterans — some from the Iraq War — there was “a lot of shaky information out there” about the Iran deal. The White House has been mounting a massive outreach campaign to try to win over skeptics and avert a congressional attempt to scuttle the deal.

    On Tuesday, the White House created a new Twitter account, @TheIranDeal, to make its case for the accord on social media.

    The president also highlighted a federal rule he’s finalizing on predatory lending and the military. Obama was seeking to make the case to the VFW that he’s working to make things better for America’s military families. The new rule, Obama said, would crack down on lenders who are “exploiting loopholes to trap our troops.”

    From Pittsburgh, Obama was hopping a quick flight to New York to tape one of Jon Stewart’s final episodes of the “The Daily Show,” where the Iran deal was once again likely to be a key topic of conversation. He planned to raise money for Senate Democrats at a private home in New York City before returning late Tuesday to Washington.

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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