WASHINGTON (AP) — In a valedictory address to veterans, President Barack Obama will argue that getting ex-military members the health care and benefits they’ve earned is a national promise that “can’t be broken.” And he’ll tout administration progress on reducing homelessness among veterans.
Obama will also announce that the administration is halfway toward building a massive database on veterans’ health when he addresses the annual convention of the Disabled American Veterans service organization Monday in Atlanta.
The president leaves office in January, and he plans to use this appearance to recap how he has tried to help former military members, moving beyond headline-grabbing scandals over lengthy wait-times for veterans seeking medical care. Outrage over those delays led to the resignation of Obama’s first Veterans Affairs secretary, retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki.
Care for America’s veterans is a top issue in the presidential campaign, with the nearly 21 million veterans in the U.S. making up a critical voting bloc that Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump are vying for in November’s election. Both Trump and Clinton spoke at the recent Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.
Trump has repeatedly blasted the VA under Obama, although Clinton has been less harsh. Both promise to overhaul the department, including its health care delivery. Demand for VA health care continues to grow, increasing 13 percent in the past year despite lingering concerns, DAV Executive Director Garry Augustine said in an interview.
Stressing progress, Obama will announce that overall veteran homelessness has been cut nearly in half, by 47 percent. That’s short of the president’s long-held goal of eliminating veteran homelessness by 2015, but Obama says the challenge is being confronted.
The White House also gives credit to first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, for using their initiative on military families to challenge mayors and county officials nationwide to end veterans’ homelessness.
Obama will also announce that half a million veterans have voluntarily given blood samples and health data for a long-term government research program. The goal is to enroll 1 million veterans as part of the president’s initiative to make “precision medicine,” or tailored treatment, a reality.
Obama is expected to talk about how a backlog of disability claims that neared 610,000 three-and-a-half years ago has now dropped below 80,000. The VA set a record by processing 1.4 million benefits claims for veterans last year, and this year it has processed more than 1 million.
But the focus on speeding up claims processing took away from the handling of appeals. More than 450,000 appeals are pending, with veterans waiting an average of three years for a decision. The White House said the situation was “unacceptable.”
The DAV’s Augustine agreed. “We want to get them both down,” he said.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald, an Army veteran and former Procter Gamble president and CEO who succeeded Shinseki, told The Associated Press in an interview that Obama’s record on serving veterans is one he can be “quite proud of,” including a more than 85 percent increase in funding for the department.
McDonald noted the increased demand for VA health care, progress toward cutting unemployment and homelessness, and efforts to streamline claims and appeals.
“The president’s got a lot to be proud of,” McDonald said.
He also argued for keeping the VA within the federal bureaucracy, not turn it over to the private sector.
“When all of us signed up, we signed up with the belief and an obligation that we were going to put our lives on the line, and in exchange for that the country was going to help support us,” McDonald said. “I see that from this president. He is going to make it clear…that this commitment is a national responsibility and a promise that can’t be broken.”
Less than a week after addressing the Democratic convention last Wednesday night on Clinton’s behalf, Obama planned to attend a party fundraiser in the Atlanta area before returning to Washington later Monday. That event is closed to news media coverage.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.
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