WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s budget proposal will include nearly a 14 percent spending increase for the section of the Department of Veterans Affairs responsible for attacking a growing backlog of disability claims — a problem that officials warned is likely to worsen in coming months.
All told, the VA would see a 4 percent increase, to $63.5 billion, for such items as veterans’ medical care and research, technology and new construction. That does not include disability, pension and education benefits.
The president is also going to ask Congress, in his budget proposal next week, to make permanent tax credits for employers who hire unemployed veterans. The unemployment rate for veterans who have served since the onset of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was 9.9 percent last year.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough told reporters Friday that more money for the VA in tight budgetary times reflects Obama’s commitment to veterans.
Veterans receive disability compensation for injuries or illness incurred during their active military service. About 600,000 claims, or 70 percent, have been pending more than 125 days. That number has soared in recent years as more veterans have sought compensation and as the claims have become more complicated. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki also made it easier for veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War to get benefits, which caused the backlog to spike, starting in 2010.
McDonough said the White House was “taking a hard look” at a request to appoint a presidential commission to address the backlog, but meanwhile, Obama had instructed all agencies with experience in dealing with claims to help the VA.
“The president has made clear to us this is a national priority. Everybody who’s got expertise, experience to bring to this fight to support (Shinseki) is going to be expected to be there,” McDonough said.
Shinseki has set a goal of eliminating the backlog in 2015. But officials also cautioned that they could not say when the number of claims pending longer than 125 days would start to go down.