ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Among the many issues President Trump touched on in his speech to veterans today was naturally care for veterans and ongoing reforms at the VA. To hear about what is and what isn't happening at the VA, we're now joined by NPR's Quil Lawrence. And, Quil, how much has the president done for veterans since he took office?
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Well, he has signed some important laws. Very recently he put through something that's called The Forever GI Bill, which extended GI Bill benefits to more people and allow them to use it for a longer amount of time. There's a VA Accountability Act which makes it easier to fire misbehaving VA officials. And Trump mentioned today some changes in the way VA clinics will operate.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are publishing wait times online for every VA facility so you know what the wait is. We've delivered same-day emergency mental health services at every VA medical center.
LAWRENCE: In fact he signed another law on stage at the convention today which makes it faster and easier for vets to appeal their VA decision about disability ratings. Now, many of these ideas are bipartisan consensus ideas as they have been around for years. But now they're moving relatively fast through Congress to the president's pen.
SIEGEL: This is worth noting here. You're talking about Congress acting in a bipartisan fashion, sending legislation quickly to the president. He's signing it. This is the exception to the rule in Washington these days, Quil.
LAWRENCE: It's like a parallel universe or something (laughter). The - but vets' issues have always been less partisan. And now with Republicans controlling Congress and the White House, they sort of own the VA. So some of the bashing of the VA, some of the political obstructionism has gone. Now, some critics, like the DNC, today said, well, Trump is just taking credit for things that have been already in the works for years. Now, this isn't unusual for a politician to do that. And Trump today at the American Legion did say that last year, he had promised them he would fix the VA.
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TRUMP: And you see what's been happening. Now you have a true reformer in Secretary David Shulkin. He has done an incredible job.
SIEGEL: Now, Quil, Secretary Shulkin may be a true reformer, but he's also a true holdover from the Obama administration - so not a radical change from the VA leadership. Has that been well-received?
LAWRENCE: Yes. I think the continuity has been appreciated. Shulkin spoke at the Legion today, too, and he got a great reception. I should say the VA still isn't fully staffed up. There are no nominees for the top three positions under Shulkin. But he, Shulkin, has been announcing big changes, including slaughtering some sacred cows.
He dropped the VA's long-suffering in-house electronic medical record. I know it sounds boring, but it's hugely important. It means that they'll be able to take electronic records from the Pentagon and send them straight over to the VA. He's opened up mental health care to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges. These people had figured high in the suicide epidemic. So he is getting some stuff done.
SIEGEL: Now, the president and the VA secretary also mentioned today the continuation of the Veterans Choice Program which lets veterans get care outside the VA system. With things moving so relatively fast at the VA, what about the concern that this program could be a slow-moving privatization of veterans' health care?
LAWRENCE: No matter how many times they deny it, that keeps coming back. Vets Choice, as we've reported on, hasn't really been a poster child for private care. The program Veterans Choice allows certain veterans to get care outside the system. It's been problematic. Shulkin today was talking up plans to reform it. We're hoping to see something like that in the fall. But even so, at the end of his speech today, he still felt the need to say that he will never, ever privatize the VA. And that got a big applause from the audience at the American Legion.
SIEGEL: That's Quil Lawrence, who covers veterans' affairs for NPR News. Quil, thanks.
LAWRENCE: Thanks, Robert.
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