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Before vacation, Obama seeks to reassure veterans on healthcare

As he leaves on vacation, Obama tells veterans that a claims backlog is shrinking and that his new law won't change their VA coverage.

August 10, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey
  • Participants at a Disabled American Veterans convention in Orlando, Fla., listen to President Obama. He sought to reassure them on their Veterans Affairs healthcare benefits.
Participants at a Disabled American Veterans convention in Orlando, Fla.,… (Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel )

EDGARTOWN, Mass. — President Obama said his administration had reduced the backlog of veterans waiting to receive benefits, and he dismissed criticism of his healthcare law, mounting one last defense of his policies before heading to this island retreat for vacation.

Speaking to disabled veterans in Orlando, Fla., early Saturday, Obama said his administration had reduced the number of delayed compensation and disability claims by nearly one-fifth over the last five months. The enormous backlog has been a source of frustration among veterans and provoked sharp criticism of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Obama said even the diminished levels were unacceptable.

"I'm going to be honest with you: It has not moved as fast as I've wanted," he said at the national convention of Disabled American Veterans. "We are not where we need to be, but we are making progress."

The speech was Obama's last official appearance before his hiatus at Martha's Vineyard. The president, First Lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha, and Bo the dog are scheduled to spend eight days at a sleek estate with ocean views. It is the Obamas' fourth presidential summer break on the island; the president did not visit during last year's campaign season.

White House aides emphasized that the president would not be truly off duty.

As on past presidential vacations, Obama will receive his daily briefings and continue to handle pressing business — all between the expected rounds of golf, beach outings, bike rides and trips to buy books. The entourage following the president to the island includes national security advisor Susan Rice, Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, Press Secretary Jay Carney and a pack of reporters.

The president was greeted warmly by a crowd that watched as his motorcade passed the green hills and gray-shingled houses. Obama, soon tucked out of sight, was expected to stay in for the night.

But before leaving the mainland, Obama conducted something of a round robin on political hot topics likely to dominate the chatter while he's away. At a news conference Friday, he announced new efforts to rein in the National Security Agency's surveillance, sought to justify his cancellation of a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, defended his healthcare law and offered a low-key defense of his former economic advisor Larry Summers, a possible nominee to the lead the Federal Reserve.

Obama continued the theme Saturday, mindful that his administration and outside groups were beginning a campaign to enroll the uninsured that could determine the success of the 2010 law. He warned of "misinformation out there" and said the law would not change veterans' healthcare in ways some critics have suggested.

"If you already have health insurance, or healthcare from the VA, you do not have to do a thing; your VA healthcare does not change. It is safe; there are no new fees," Obama said. "Don't let them hoodwink you."

The president also highlighted his administration's efforts to fund research into post-traumatic brain disorder and programs aimed at reducing suicides among returning veterans. But the claims backlog is arguably the most high-profile veterans issue for a president who sought to restore faith in the VA after scandals under his predecessor.

The number of claims and delays has soared 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 VA statistics.

Obama said that new computer systems, more funding and mandatory overtime for processors were "turning the tide." He noted that the administration and Congress had increased funding for the VA while cutting the budget for most other federal agencies. The agency is on track to reach its goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015, the White House said.

Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), the ranking member on a Senate subcommittee that controls spending for veterans affairs, said he was pleased the president addressed the issue, but he added that Obama's action came late.

"The time to act is long overdue," Kirk said in a statement, urging Obama to back legislation Kirk is sponsoring aimed at eliminating the backlog.

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