Obama administration whittles away at veterans benefits backlog

Speaking to disabled veterans Saturday, President Obama said the backlog of those waiting for benefits is shrinking, and he announced a new plan to address PTSD, brain injuries, and suicide. Still, he said, 'We are not where we need to be.'

Larry Downing/REUTERS
President Barack Obama shakes hands after he speaks at the Disabled American Veterans' National Convention in Orlando, Florida, Saturday August 10, 2013.

Before beginning a week’s vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, President Obama addressed a longstanding problem for thousands of military veterans returned from US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and seeking government help: lengthy waits for medical treatment, disability benefits, and other services due them.

In a speech at the Disabled American Veterans' convention in Orlando, Florida, Saturday, Mr. Obama said his administration is making progress on reducing a backlog of disability claims and said the number of requests for assistance has fallen by nearly one-fifth since peaking at more than 600,000 just a few months ago.

"Today I can report that we are not where we need to be, but we are making progress," he said. "So after years when the backlog kept growing, finally the backlog is shrinking."

The number of claims ballooned after Obama made it easier for Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange to get benefits. Access to benefits also was eased for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Gulf War veterans afflicted with malaria, West Nile virus, or other infectious diseases.

CNN notes a recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting finding that since Obama took office in 2009, the number of veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits jumped from 11,000 in 2009 to 245,000 last December. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says the average wait time after a veteran files a claim is 273 days. But for veterans filing their first claim, including Iraq and Afghanistan vets, the wait is up to 327 days, nearly two months longer.

The backlog is shrinking due to some aggressive steps taken by the VA, including requiring claims processors in its 56 regional benefits offices to work overtime and moving from a manual to a computerized system to help speed the judgment of claims.

About 780,000 claims are pending. About 496,000 are considered backlogged after the 20 percent reduction Obama highlighted Saturday, down from 611,000 at the end of March. A claim is considered backlogged if it has been in the system for 125 days.

"I'm going to be honest with you. It has not moved as fast as I wanted," Obama told the vets in Orlando. “We're not going to let up until we eliminate the backlog once and for all.”

Veterans’ services – a huge and costly set of complicated programs – has been a major challenge for all recent presidents, more so as Vietnam veterans grow older (some of them just now receiving benefits for PTSD and exposure to Agent Orange) and a new generation of younger men and women in uniform return from ten years of multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Attending to veterans has been a particular focus for the President and first lady Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama and Jill Biden, Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, have used the “Joining Forces” program they launched to publicize the needs of military families.

At the Camp Pendleton US Marine Corps base in California the other day, Obama told the men and women in uniform, “After all you’ve given to our nation, you have to know your nation will always be faithful to you.”

“I’m here because, for more than a decade, you – and all our men and women in uniform – have borne the burden in this time of war,” Obama said.

In Orlando Saturday, Obama also announced the release of a comprehensive national plan to improve the ability to prevent, diagnose and treat PTSD and traumatic brain injuries and mental health issues earlier and better, and to reduce suicides, according to a briefing paper released by the White House before the president spoke.

To the cheering crowd of some 3,400 disabled veterans and their families, Obama praised veterans for their contributions after armed conflicts, reports the Orlando Sentinel.

"I think of wounded warriors across America and how they've used that second chance, volunteering in communities, building homes, being a mentor to local kids, showing up after tornadoes, after Hurricane Sandy, to help folks rebuild," the President said. "I think of the wounded warriors who reached out to the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing with the example of their own recovery and with a simple message: We stand with you.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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