President Barack Obama on Saturday assured disabled veterans that his administration is making significant progress on reducing a backlog of disability claims and said the number of requests for assistance has fallen by nearly one-fifth since reaching a peak of more than 600,000 just a few months ago.
In a speech at the Disabled American Veterans' convention in Orlando, Obama also announced a new national plan to guide mental health research, as well as commitments from 250 community colleges and universities to help veterans earn college degrees or get the credentials they need to find jobs.
Veterans have repeatedly called for the federal government to reduce the backlog of disability claims, so that they can receive compensation from illness and injury stemming from their military service.
"After years of military service, you shouldn't have to wait years for the benefits you've earned," Obama said.
The volume of claims skyrocketed when Obama made it easier for Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange to get benefits. The administration also broadened access to benefits for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and Gulf War veterans afflicted with malaria, West Nile virus or other infectious diseases.
The backlog is decreasing as a result of aggressive steps taken by the Department of Veterans Affairs, including requiring claims processors in the department's 56 offices to work overtime and transitioning from a manual to a computerized system, administration officials said.
There are 780,000 claims pending, 496,000 of which are considered backlogged even after the 20 percent reduction Obama highlighted. That backlog amount is 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.
Obama acknowledged there is still a significant amount of work needed to eliminate the backup by 2015 as VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has promised.
"We are not where we need to be, but we are making progress," Obama said.
The president also announced the release of a comprehensive national plan to improve the ability to prevent, diagnose and treat PTSD and traumatic brain injuries and mental health issues earlier and better, and to reduce suicides, according to a briefing paper the White House released Saturday before the president spoke.
With Al Jazeera and Wire Services