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 firms 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 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, 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 refinance their mortgages at lower interest rates.
"We’re going to help more of our military troops and their families own their own home without a crushing debt," Obama said at an American Legion meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The White House said the initiative, in which mortgage servicers will actively seek out people eligible for lower-cost refinancing rather than waiting for applicants, will help tens of thousands of military families save money by reducing their mortgage interest rates.
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 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 veteran 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."
Obama had campaigned on a pledge to improve services for the surge of veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Veterans Affairs scandal undermined public confidence in him.
The president drew praise 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 the president because the state’s incumbent Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, is in a tight race against her conservative Republican challenger, Thom Tillis.
Obama hopes the Senate will remain under Democratic leadership in the final two years of his administration to improve his chances of making headway with his agenda. The North Carolina race could tip the balance.
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)