By Jeff Mason
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) – President Barack Obama promised faster attention to a backlog of veterans’ disability claims and announced a new mental health initiative on Saturday during a stop in Florida before beginning a week-long vacation.
Traveling to Orlando with his wife, Michelle, Obama addressed a gathering of the Disabled American Veterans group.
He highlighted progress in reducing a huge number of outstanding veterans’ disability claims; the backlog has decreased by 20 percent from its high of 611,000 claims at the end of March.
“We are not where we need to be, but we are making progress,” Obama said. “We are not going to let up until we eliminate the backlog once and for all … After years of military service you shouldn’t have to wait for years for what you’ve earned.”
Obama ended the U.S. war in Iraq since coming into office and has pledged to wind down the war in Afghanistan by the end of next year. With big numbers of American troops coming home, services for veterans are in high demand, and the government has struggled to keep up.
The president warned that “reckless” budget cuts, known as the sequester, pose one of the biggest threats to veterans’ benefits.
“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 said.
Obama outlined several priorities he had set for veterans’ affairs, including ensuring that budgets were elevated, promised healthcare provided, homelessness reduced, and jobs and education benefits boosted.
He unveiled a new “action plan” on mental health research meant to improve diagnosis and treatment of brain injuries.
The White House also repeated a call to permanently extend veterans-related tax credits, including one worth as much as $5,600 to companies that hire unemployed former military service members. That tax credit currently expires at the end of 2013.
Obama and the first lady have made military and veterans’ issues a top priority of their time in the White House. Earlier this week the president addressed a group of Marines and sailors at Camp Pendleton, California, and pressed for greater efforts to cut down on sexual assault in the armed services.
Though Obama does not have another presidential election in his future, Florida is a crucial battleground state for his fellow Democrats and the opposition Republicans. Veterans are an important voting bloc.
After the Florida stop, the Obamas begin their vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The week-long break comes ahead of looming budget battles in Washington and continued controversy over U.S. surveillance programs.
The president will receive regular national security briefings during his trip.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici in Washington; Editing by Eric Beech)
[Image: President Barack Obama addresses the Disabled American Veterans’ National Convention in Orlando, Aug. 10, 2013. By Larry Downing for Reuters.]