Veterans’ advocates are praising a speech by President Barack Obama on the massive backlog of disability claims, marking the first time the president personally addressed the problem since it came to widespread public attention this spring.
Obama told the national convention of Disabled American Veterans on Saturday that the number of veterans facing long waits for disability compensation had declined by 20 percent since March. He also said that the Department of Veterans Affairs was turning the tide in its efforts to eliminate a massive backlog of disability benefits claims and that his administration is “not going to let up until we eliminate this backlog once and for all.”
Through his speech, Obama “let everyone know that there’s real attention being paid to this and that he is committed to solving this problem,” said Tom Tarantino, a former Army captain and chief policy officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “The fact that it got so bad under his watch gives him a unique perspective and responsibility to fix it.”
The administration’s handling of the backlog has received increasing scrutiny since March, when The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the VA’s ability to quickly provide benefits to veterans with conditions as serious as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury had virtually collapsed during the Obama administration. Between 2009, when Obama took office, and December 2012, the number of veterans waiting more than a year for benefits increased by more than 2,000 percent, CIR reported.
After the story ran, 67 senators and more than 160 members of the House wrote to Obama, demanding that the president become personally involved in solving the problem. In April, the VA promised that no veteran would wait longer than a year by October.
Since then, the number of disability claims that are officially backlogged – meaning the veteran already has waited more than four months – has declined by nearly 116,000, and the average amount of time a claim has been pending has dropped by two months.
But the VA’s own data show that while some progress has been made in recent months, delays remain significantly worse than they were when Obama took office.
Despite the progress, veterans wait 219 days on average, nearly twice as long as they did in 2009.
More than 720,000 veterans are waiting for disability benefits – up from about 416,000 in 2009.
Nearly 470,000 disability claims are officially backlogged. That’s down since March but is still more than triple the number that were backlogged when Obama took office.
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