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.
"I think I can say without fear of contradiction that you will be seeing additions to the backlog for the coming months," McDonough said.
Shinseki said the key to improving VA services was to eliminate paper records through a new computer system that is being rolled out to VA regional offices throughout the country. The Veterans Benefits Administration, which oversees the disability claims, would get up to $2.5 billion, a 13.6 percent increase, in the coming fiscal year if Congress goes along with the request.
Over the years, the VA has consistently underestimated the progress it projected to make on the backlog. Shinseki was asked why veterans should believe the agency now as it sticks with the mantra that the backlog will be broken in 2015. Shinseki said it has taken time to develop the computer system that will improve efficiency and speed the approval process.
"I'm pretty confident of the path that we're on," Shinseki said.
The budget also calls for a 7.2 percent increase for mental health care services as part of the overall $63.5 billion budget. The proposed increase reflects concerns about ensuring that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder have timely access to care.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, voiced skepticism that more money for the VA would improve results.
"Congress has given VA everything it has asked for to overcome perennial challenges such as the backlog and mental health care access," Miller said. "For its part, VA has failed to deliver the results department officials have been promising for years."
Congress approved tax breaks for companies that hire veterans back in late 2011. Employers get up to a $5,600 tax credit for hiring a veteran out of work for more than six months, or up to $9,600 for hiring a disabled veteran out of work for the same amount of time. The credits were among several factors that helped lower the unemployment rate for the latest generation of veterans from 12.1 percent to 9.9 percent last year. The Obama administration said that making the credit permanent reduces employer uncertainty about the long-term viability of the credit, which should lead to more businesses participating in the program.