Obama promises veterans he’s ‘still not satisfied’ with VA health & jobs programs

U.S. President Barack Obama lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Veterans Day, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia November 11, 2015. © Kevin Lamarque
Holding with Veterans Day tradition, President Barack Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. His remarks, though, focused less on past wars and more on how service members are treated once they return home.

Obama’s comments at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Wednesday centered on reducing waiting times at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities, ending veteran homelessness and helping service members find work in everyday society.

“If tomorrow, after the parades and the ceremonies, we roll up the banners and sweep the veterans’ halls and go back to our daily lives, forgetting the bond between the service of our veterans and our obligations as citizens, then we will be doing a profound disservice to our veterans and to the very cause for which they serve,” the president said.

More than 200,000 service members will become civilians this year, joining more than one million veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. To help with their transition, and to make lives better for veterans of previous conflicts, Obama wants Congress to pass legislation that would consolidate the VA’s outside care programs, as well as extend education benefits and make sure those benefits pay for credentialing programs that meet state requirements.

“This day is not only about gratitude for what they have done for us. It is also a reminder of all they still have to give to our nation and our duty to them,” the president said.

Obama touted the progress that has been made during his administration, but admitted that there is still work to do for the nation’s 19.3 million veterans.

“Our tributes today will ring hollow if we do not ensure that our veterans receive the care that you have earned and that you deserve,” Obama said. “My message to every single veteran, to veterans all across the country, is I am still not satisfied. We are not going to let up.”

Shrinking the VA backlog

The biggest stumbling block for veterans has been in their health care, due to massive backlogs in disability and pension claims. Currently there are about 76,000 claims that have been pending for more than 125 days, a drop from a high of more than 611,000 in March 2013. During that same period, though, the appeals caseload has risen steadily by almost 75,000 claims, the Military Times reported.

The issue came to light last May thanks to allegations from multiple whistleblowers that veteran’s hospitals systematically manipulate waiting lists, resulting in the deaths of dozens of patients. Eighteen months since the scandal broke, the VA added 1,400 doctors and saw more than seven million more patients than it did in the year before the crisis, according to the Washington Post.

“The good news is that in recent years, we have made historic investments to boost the VA budget, expand benefits, offer more mental health care and improved care for our wounded warriors, especially those with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury,” Obama said.

The backlog between the time veterans apply for disability claims and begin receiving their benefits has plummeted by nearly 90 percent, the president noted.

“Still the unacceptable problems that we’ve seen, like long wait times and some veterans not getting the timely care that they need, is a challenge for all of us if we are to match our words with deeds,” Obama said.

“We are going to keep investing in the facilities and the physicians and the staff to make sure that our veterans get the care that you need when you need it,” he added. “That is our obligation, and we are not going to let up.”

VA Secretary Robert McDonald, who introduced Obama at the Veterans Day ceremony, praised the president for his “tremendous support” of the agency’s efforts to reduce the backlogs of benefits and disability claims.

“Veterans could not ask for stronger advocates than our president, vice president and their wives,” McDonald said.

Ending veteran homelessness

The VA has done a better job when it comes to meeting Obama’s vow to end veteran homelessness by 2016, a promise he made during his first year in office. There were an estimated 50,000 homeless vets nationwide in 2014, a 33 percent drop from 2010, according to a one-night survey completed every January.

“We’re reducing the outrage of veteran homelessness and helped tens of thousands get off the streets,” Obama said Wednesday, praising the VA for helping homeless veterans find places to live. 

The VA uses a voucher program that gets such vets into housing immediately and pays for it with coupons that subsidize most or all of the rent. The agency spent about $1.5 billion on homelessness last year, up from $376 million in 2009, AP reported.

Cecilia Munoz, the White House Domestic Policy Council director, told the Military Times that the homelessness numbers, like many other VA initiatives, “show a lot of progress has been made, but we also have a lot more to do.”

Hiring more vets

The most successful aspect of Obama’s push to make veterans’ lives better has been convincing American companies to hire more vets, and the bulk of his remarks at Arlington mirrored that.

“Today, the veterans’ unemployment rate is down to 3.9 percent, even lower than the national average” of 5 percent, Obama said. “If you want to get the job done, hire a vet.”

Although the president touted an overall veteran unemployment rate of below 4 percent, the Washington Post reported the jobless rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is 4.6 percent, which is still a marked improvement from just two years ago, when nearly 10 percent of recent vets were unemployed.

Veterans are “exactly the kind of people we need to keep America competitive in the 21st century,” Obama said. “That’s why more and more companies are hiring veterans. Not out of charity, not out of patriotism or some moral obligation ‒ although they do have those obligations ‒ but because they know it’s good for their bottom line.”

“They get stuff done, and they are selfless, and they are brave and they are qualified. And America needs folks who know how to get stuff done,” he added. “They’re ready to serve and they’ll make you proud.”

Obama also touted how veterans are using education benefits to expand their employment opportunities, noting that more than 1.5 million veterans and their families are using the post-9/11 GI Bill for education.

“That’s why we worked to make sure that every state now provides veterans and their families with in-state tuition,” Obama said. “That’s why we're fighting to make it easier for our veterans to get the licenses and certifications to transition the outstanding skills they gained in the armed services to civilian jobs. That’s why we're helping more veterans and military spouses find jobs.”