Obama Announces Plans to Help Veterans, Reduce Claims Backlog

At the Disabled American Veterans conference Saturday, President Obama unveiled education and research initiatives to help war veterans, promising also to keep "making progress" on reducing a giant disability claims backlog.

At the conference, the President announced The National Research Action Plan, a $100 million grant to research centers led by the University of Texas at San Antonio and Virginia Commonwealth University. The initiative intends to focus research on treating brain injuries and mental illness, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder. It's especially looking at reducing soldier suicides — according to the Pentagon, there were 349 suicides last year alone.

"We [...] need to keep improving mental health services because we have to end this epidemic of suicide among our veterans and troops," Obama said.

Obama also introduced a second initiative, dubbed "8 Keys to Success," which hopes to support veterans get the credentials necessary for landing high-skilled jobs. The measure involves more than 250 community colleges and universities helping veterans to afford and complete degrees, certificates and industry-recognized licenses.

The President used the opportunity to address concerns over the giant backlog of disability claims for compensation for illness and injury caused by military service, pointing out that the backlog has recently starting going down.

"We are not where we need to be, but we are making progress," he said. "Finally the backlog is shrinking — in the last five months alone it's down nearly 20 percent."

The number of claims that were backlogged — i.e, in the system for roughly four months — grew immensely under the Obama administration, inciting criticism from many in the V.A. According to a report released recently by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the number of veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits spiked under Obama, from 11,000 in 2009 to 245,000 in 2012. Around 500,000 are considered backlogged right now.

But this may be due in a large part to an increase in the number of claims actually being made. In 2001, the V.A. completed approximately 480,000 claims, but that number jumped to over a million claims in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

"We're turning the tide. We're not going to let up until we eliminate the backlog once and for all," Obama added.

He also took the time to mention how the recent government budget cuts aren't going to be affecting veterans — yet.

“I made it clear that your veteran’s benefits are exempt from this year’s sequester,” the president said. “But I want to tell you going forward the best way to protect the VA care you have earned is to get rid of this sequester altogether.”

"Congress needs to come together and agree on a responsible plan that reduces our deficit and keeps our promises to our veterans and keeps our promises to future generations,” he added.

The cuts started in March, after Congress and the White House couldn't agree on a balanced plan to cut federal spending.

Watch a bit of the conference here: