ORLANDO -- A dozen wartime years are winding down, but the job of caring for veterans new and old is only just beginning, President Barack Obama told thousands of veterans in Orlando on Saturday.
“So long as I’m the United States’ president, I will make it my mission to make sure that America is right there beside you every step of the way,” Obama told a Disabled American Veterans national convention.
“This time of war may be coming to an end, but the job of caring for veterans goes on, and our work caring for our newest veterans has only just begun.”
The president and First Lady Michelle Obama addressed a Hilton ballroom loaded with military caps, motorized scooters, wheelchairs and more than 3,000 veterans before heading to Martha’s Vineyard for a family vacation.
Four years ago, when he last addressed the Disabled Veterans national convention, the president promised to cut the backlog of outstanding claims with the Veterans Administration. In fact, the backlog of claims that have been in the system at least 125 days has ballooned during the Obama administration, in part because more veterans have become eligible for care, including those disabled by Agent Orange and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We are not where we need to be, but we are making progress,” Obama said. “Finally the backlog is shrinking. In the last five months alone, it’s down nearly 20 percent. We’re turning the tide.”
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, administration officials said.
About 780,000 claims are pending. About 496,000 are considered backlogged after the 20 percent reduction Obama highlighted, down from 611,000 at the end of March, said White House press secretary Jay Carney. A claim is considered backlogged if it has been in the system for 125 days, or roughly four months.
The president also outlined a new, $100 million initiative for research into brain injuries and mental health challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder and what he called “this epidemic of suicide among our veterans and troops.”
The president and first lady have made support for veterans and military families a high priority, and Saturday’s stop in Orlando was the second time in a week he addressed members of the military. Both sprinkled their speeches with anecdotes of wounded warriors recovering from traumatic injuries.
“I see a group of people who know how to get back up. No matter what the struggles you have faced, you all get back up. That is what inspires me,” the first lady said.
A few-dozen protesters outside the Hilton Orlando greeted the president with signs including “Kenyan Go Home” and “Impeach Obama” but inside the ballroom the crowd appeared overwhelmingly enthusiastic.
They cheered when he noted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down.
“This work is more important than ever,” Obama said of veterans services, “because this time of war that we’ve been in is coming to an end.”
Several in the crowd noted how the president had ramped up funding for veterans services and staffing.
“I used to get to the hospital for an 8 o’clock appointment and not get in to see a doctor until 5 o’clock,” said Salvador Ayala, an 83-year-old former Korean War paratrooper from California. “Now I get to the hospital at 8:30, and they see me at 8:30. It’s night and day.”
Andy Marshall, a Vietnam veteran from St. Petersburg, said frustration from veterans has subsided dramatically in recently years.
“Obama has increased health care funding for veterans by 40 percent. It’s hard to ask for more,” he said.
Still, Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, who represents the Pensacola area and leads the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, greeted Obama with an op-ed column in the Orlando Sentinel lamenting an “alarming pattern of complacency” among leaders of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“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 wrote. “Sadly, the department’s widespread and systemic lack of accountability may be encouraging more veteran suffering instead of preventing it.”
Obama made a point of assuring the crowd that their benefits would remain unchanged under Obamacare.
“Some folks are out there trying to scare people, including veterans,” he said. “So let me say this as plainly as I can. If you already have health insurance, or health care from the VA, you do not have to do a thing; your VA health care does not change, it is safe; there are no new fees. Don’t let them hoodwink you.”
And he called on Congress to replace the sweeping “sequester” budget cuts that automatically took effect this year.
“The best way to protect the VA care you have earned is to get rid of this sequester altogether,” he said. “Congress needs to come together and agree on a responsible plan that reduces our deficit and keeps our promises to our veterans and keeps our promises to future generations.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.