President Obama is greeted prior to speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Phoenix Monday.
President Obama is greeted prior to speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Phoenix Monday. Alex Brandon/AP
Seeking to put an end to what he said was "misinformation" about his health insurance overhaul proposals, President Obama assured veterans Monday their health benefits would be protected.
At a speech in Phoenix to members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Obama said the United States has a responsibility to care for servicemen and -women who have been physically and psychologically wounded in combat — while they are in uniform and when they go back to civilian life.
"No one is going to take away your benefits. That's the truth," he told the group. "We will not abandon these American heroes."
Obama said his administration is investing billions of dollars in treatment centers, case managers and improved care for wounded troops. He also promised more money for treatment and mental health screening for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
"We're dramatically increasing funding for veterans health care," he said. "This includes hundreds of millions of dollars to serve veterans in rural areas as well as the unique needs of our growing number of women veterans. We're restoring access to VA health care for a half-million veterans who lost their eligibility in recent years."
For several weeks, the president has focused most of his public comments on garnering support for his health care overhaul. But with the death toll rising among U.S. service members in Afghanistan and public support softening, Obama used the occasion to reiterate why he thinks it is important to stabilize Afghanistan.
Obama noted that al-Qaida and other terrorist groups have moved their bases to the remote tribal areas along the Pakistani-Afghan border. "Our new strategy has a clear mission and defined goals — to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and its extremist allies," he said.
With the Afghan elections due to take place this week, the top U.S. commander there is in the midst of mapping out a revised troop plan for the president. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that report will not contain a request to expand the U.S. fighting force of 62,000 troops. An additional 6,000 are headed there by the end of the year.
While the president spoke, anti-war protesters demonstrated outside. The protest was organized by a group called Bring the Troops Home from Afghanistan, but it was also expected to attract those opposed to the president's health care overhaul. Protesters have disrupted health care town hall meetings around the country as lawmakers continue to pound out an agreement that could win support from Democrats and Republicans.
While Obama pledged more money for troops and veterans — for everything from protective gear and armored vehicles on the battlefield to child care and better housing for families — he said Defense Department waste is adding to the deficit and uses up funds that could be spent on troops.
"We can't build the 21st century military we need and maintain the fiscal responsibility that Americans demand unless we fundamentally reform the way our defense establishment does business," he said. "Every dollar wasted in our defense budget is a dollar we can't spend to care for our troops, protect America or prepare for the future."
Obama said he has already put an end to no-bid contracts and cut wasteful projects — including billions for a new presidential helicopter.
Even as the president prepared to return to Washington on Monday afternoon, the administration was trying to shore up support for the health care overhaul.
On Sunday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelieus said the nonprofit insurance cooperatives that the Senate Finance Committee is considering may be acceptable to the White House.
Former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said he doesn't think the overhaul would be meaningful without optional government-backed health insurance, often referred to as "public option" insurance.
"You can't really do health reform without it," said Dean, who is a physician. He told NBC's Today program that the health insurance industry has put enormous pressure on patients and doctors.
Many lawmakers and members of the public are worried about the cost of the plan and have concerns that the public option would put the government in competition with private insurers.
With $3 billion to $4 billion in initial support from the government, the nonprofit co-ops would operate under a national structure with state affiliates, but independent of the government. They would be required to maintain the type of financial reserves that private companies are required to keep in case of unexpectedly high claims.
"I think there will be a competitor to private insurers," Sebelius said. "That's really the essential part ... you don't turn over the whole new marketplace to private insurance companies and trust them to do the right thing."
From NPR's Deborah Tedford, with additional reporting from NPR staff and Arizona Public Radio