EDGARTOWN, Mass. — The number of veterans waiting months to receive benefits has begun to shrink, President Obama said Saturday, announcing progress in tackling an enormous backlog that has become a source of frustration and criticism from veterans groups.
Speaking to disabled veterans in Orlando, Fla., Obama said his administration had reduced the number of delayed compensation and disability claims by nearly one-fifth over the last five months.
“I’m going to be honest with you, it has not moved as fast as I’ve wanted,” Obama conceded, calling the size of the remaining backlog “unacceptable.” “We are not where we need to be, but we are making progress.”
Obama spoke at the national convention of Disabled American Veterans, a support and advocacy organization. The president also highlighted his administration’s efforts to fund research into post-traumatic brain disorder, as well as programs aimed at reducing suicides among returning veterans.
The claims backlog has become a high-profile challenge and embarrassment for a president who sought to restore faith in veterans healthcare after the scandals under his predecessor.
Still, the number of claims and delays has risen in the last three years, driven in part by an aging population of Vietnam War veterans and rule changes that made more veterans eligible. In fiscal year 2011, the backlog jumped from 200,000 claims to nearly 500,000.
Roughly 780,000 claims are pending and about 500,000 of those have been in the system for more than 125 days. That backlog is down about 18% from its peak of 611,000 stalled claims in March, according to statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Obama said Saturday that new computer systems, more funding and mandatory overtime for processors are “turning the tide.” He noted that the administration and Congress have increased funding for the VA, while cutting the budget for most other federal agencies. The VA is on track to reach its goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015, the White House said.
The speech was Obama's last official duty before heading Saturday to his summer vacation.
Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha, and Bo the dog are slated to spend eight days in a sleek estate on Martha’s Vineyard. This will be the Obamas’ fourth presidential hiatus on the tony island off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
As with all presidential vacations, Obama will not really be “off duty,” White House aides stressed.
The president will receive his daily briefings and continue to handle pressing business – all between the expected rounds of golf, beach outings and trips to the bookstore. On Obama’s flight from Florida to Massachusetts, he was joined by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, as well as other aides and reporters.