"We are not where we need to be, but we are making progress," President Obama said.
(Photo: Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images)
Calling it his "mission" to help veterans "recover from the wounds of war," President Obama said Saturday his team is working to reduce the backlog of compensation claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"It has not moved as fast as I wanted it to," Obama told a convention of disabled veterans in Orlando. "We are not where we need to be, but we are making progress."
The president also outlined plans to spend more than $100 million on new research into mental health challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder and what he called "this epidemic of suicide."
Obama also said he is enlisting colleges to help train veterans for "the high-skill jobs of tomorrow."
Speaking to some 3,400 people at the Disabled American Veterans' convention, Obama praised the "9/11 generation" of warriors who have fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and again pledged to help them transition back to civilian life.
One major complaint from veterans has been the backlog of claims for compensation from the VA.
As the president noted in his speech, the number of claims has increased in recent years, in part because the Obama administration offered benefits to veterans suffering from PTSD as well as Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the jungle defoliant Agent Orange.
According to the White House, the VA backlog - which includes claims that have been in the system for 125 days or more - has decreased from 611,000 to about 496,000 in recent months, a 20% reduction.
The quality of care at VA hospitals has also been criticized.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, listed the VA's shortcomings in an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, writing that "in addition to the department's massive disability-benefits backlog, a disturbing pattern of preventable veteran deaths and other patient-safety issues has emerged at VA hospitals around the country."
Miller added: "Sadly, the department's widespread and systemic lack of accountability may be encouraging more veteran suffering instead of preventing it."
During his speech, Obama listed a series of "priorities" for veterans, including sufficient funding, improving the health care system, addressing homelessness among former troops and providing job training for returning service members.
With U.S. involvement in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan coming to an end, Obama said "the job of caring for America's veterans has only just begun."
After the speech, Obama was scheduled to fly to Martha's Vineyard to begin a week-long vacation.