President Obama will head to Martha’s Vineyard this afternoon, spending the upcoming week there with his family and a few aides.
But before going on vacation, Obama addressed wounded veterans at the Disabled American Veterans National Convention in Orlando, Fla., Saturday afternoon, pledging improvement in the Veterans Administration (VA) claims backlog and touting access to health care for veterans.
The VA’s backlog of hundreds of thousands of benefit claims has drawn sharp criticism. Last month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called it a “national disgrace.”
Over 796,000 VA benefit claims are pending, nearly 515,000 of them backlogged, having been filed over 125 days ago.
Obama today cited recent progress, as backlogged claims have dropped 20 percent since their peak at over 611,000 in March, according to the White House. Obama said the VA has hired more claims processors, dedicated more existing staff to the backlog, and given higher priority to older claims.
“We are turning the tide,” Obama said, promising “paperless systems so the backlog doesn’t come back.”
He also promoted the Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare,” and the nearing end of America’s war in Afghanistan.
“Our war in Afghanistan has entered the final chapter, more of our troops are coming home,” Obama said, citing the 34,000-troop draw-down slated for this winter. Soon, Obama said, more will come home and “our war in Afghanistan will be over.”
Hitting on a recent theme, the president defended his health-care reforms. In his series of economic speeches over the last month, Obama has aggressively attacked critics of the law.
“Some folks are out there trying to scare people, including veterans,” Obama said. “Don’t let them fool you. No one’s taking away your benefits.”
Obama touted the new regional insurance exchanges scheduled to be up and running this fall.
“The good news is if you’re among … the more than one million veterans who don’t have health insurance, starting October 1st you’ll have a new option,” Obama said. “Because of the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies will no longer be able to discriminate against you or deny you coverage because of preexisting conditions.”
The federal budget sequester won’t endanger VA benefits, Obama assured the audience, noting a 40 percent boost in the VA budget and proposed increases in Obama’s current budget proposal.
“But I want to tell you going forward the best way to protect the VA care you have earned is to get rid of this sequester altogether,” Obama said.
The president touted $100 million spent on research of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), conditions that have gained national recognition as veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking care.
“I’m not gonna be satisfied until every veteran, every man and woman in uniform gets the help and support they need to stay strong,” Obama said, pledging to work to end the wave of suicides among veterans.
Obama also said his administration will launch a program called “8 Keys to Success,” in which 250 community colleges and universities have partnered with the Department of Education to help veterans earn degrees, and he pledged to keep up efforts to end veteran homelessness.
“The road to recovery is often such a long haul, and America needs to be there for you during that long haul,” Obama said.