President Barack Obama on Saturday pledged to make sure the government has all the resources needed to assist U.S. veterans, and he notes their ranks are growing as wars end in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama told a convention of disabled veterans about his commitment to fulfill the country's promise to all who have served their nation — and says that's a promise "for as long as you and your families walk this earth."
The president also said in a speech Saturday in Orlando, Fla., that his administration is making progress in reducing a big backlog of disability claims.
Obama says that with a new generation of veterans, he believes now is the time "to make sure our nation is truly ready, organized and structured to get this right."
The president also planned to discuss research into traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among veterans and troops, as well as efforts to help veterans earn college degrees or get the credentials needed to compete for high-skilled jobs.
Also scheduled to speak Saturday before the Disabled American Veterans' convention was first lady Michelle Obama. She and Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, are leading a national effort to rally public support for military families.
A main concern for veterans is the staggering backlog of disability claims for compensation for illness and injury caused by military service.
The number of claims waiting to be processed ballooned under Obama, largely because the administration made it easier for Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the Agent Orange defoliant to get benefits.
The backlog recently has begun to shrink due to steps by the Department of Veterans Affairs, including requiring claims processors to work overtime and transitioning to a new computer system to help speed the judgment of claims. About 780,000 claims are pending. Currently, about 500,000 are considered backlogged, down from about 611,000 in March.
A claim is deemed backlogged if it has been in the system for 125 days, or roughly four months.
The Disabled American Veterans organization, which helps veterans access benefits, generally has applauded the administration for taking steps to address the backlog. The group also has been a strong defender of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has promised to wipe out the claims backup by 2015.
Beyond the backlogged claims, Republican lawmakers have begun to hammer the department on the issue of patient safety. A congressional hearing in Atlanta this past week focused on poor patient care linked to four deaths. Another hearing is scheduled for next month in Pittsburgh, where five veterans died as a result of a Legionnaire's disease outbreak in 2011-12.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said he hoped Obama would use his appearance at the convention to make a personal commitment to solving both issues.
In his remarks, Obama also was expected to reaffirm the administration's commitment to winning ratification of U.N. treaty encouraging countries to ensure that those with disabilities have equal rights and fundamental freedoms.
Led by Republican opposition, the Senate rejected the treaty last December, falling five votes short of the number needed for ratification.
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