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Obama tells veterans better mental health care on the way

By Mark Felsenthal

CHARLOTTE N.C. (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sought to make amends with veterans on Tuesday, announcing steps to expand their access to mental health care and an initiative with financial companies to lower home loan costs for military families.

The president was embarrassed earlier this year when it was revealed that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had been covering up lengthy delays in providing healthcare to former military personnel.

Obama, speaking at the American Legion's national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, announced steps to improve availability of mental health care for military personnel as they move to civilian life and expanded research into post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide. He said efforts to improve veterans' healthcare would continue.

"Misconduct we’ve seen at too many facilities with long wait times and folks cooking the books is outrageous and inexcusable," he said. "What I want you to know directly from me, is we are going to get to the bottom of these problems, we are going to fix what is wrong, we are going to do right by your families."

The president also said that banks, including Wells Fargo & Co , Bank of America Corp and Quicken Loans, were taking steps to make it easier for members of the military to obtain lower interest rates on their mortgages.

"We’re going to help more of our military troops and their families own their own home without a crushing debt," Obama said.

The White House said the initiative, in which mortgage servicers will actively seek out people eligible for lower rates rather than waiting for applicants, will help tens of thousands of military families save money.

On a $200,000 mortgage, an interest rate reduction of 1 percentage point would result in over $1,500 a year in savings, White House National Economic Council director Jeffrey Zients said.

Obama had campaigned on a pledge to improve services for the surge of veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Veterans Affairs scandal undermined public confidence in him.

The VA scandal broke last spring. As a result, Eric Shinseki resigned as head of the agency. Earlier this month, Obama signed a $16.3 billion bill to provide veterans with more timely medical care and fix problems in the VA.

The president drew applause from the American Legion audience when he repeated his pledge not to involve U.S. ground troops in Iraq to combat Islamic State militants.

The location of the speech, North Carolina, also has relevance for Obama because the state’s incumbent Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, is in a tight race against her conservative Republican challenger, Thom Tillis.

The president hopes to retain Democratic control of the U.S. Senate in the November election, improving his chances of moving forward on his agenda in his final two years in office. However, most polls show Republican winning the six new seats necessary to gain a majority in the upper house of the legislature.

But Obama is unpopular in the Tar Heel State, and Hagan has sought to distance herself from him. She recently criticized him for not doing enough to help veterans in North Carolina.

(Reporting By Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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