WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s speech to the Disabled American Veterans convention in Florida this weekend predictably covered a wide range of military and postmilitary topics. Here’s a look at the biggest takeaways from the commander-in-chief’s annual formal address to the veterans community:
New research into PTSD, TBI cures
Obama unveiled plans for new research projects, led by the Defense Department and VA, to provide better answers on veterans’ mental health issues. The $107 million commitment includes partnerships with a variety of public universities, military health institutes and VA regional centers.
“We’re going to focus on developing more effective ways to prevent, diagnose and treat mental health conditions like [traumatic brain injury] and [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Obama told the DAV members. “I’m not going to be satisfied until every veteran and every man and woman in uniform gets the support and the help they need to stay strong.”
Outside medical experts estimate that as many as one in five returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans could be suffering from a traumatic brain injury.
As many as 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have battled PTSD.
The move is an extension of Obama’s executive order last year to boost research on mental illness and suicide prevention.
No news on the backlog
Obama said VA workers are “turning the tide” on fixing the disability claims backlog, the number of cases pending for more than four months. Since March, the department has cut the backlog by about 20 percent, but the number of overdue claims still sits near 500,000.
The president acknowledged that progress on the problem “has not moved as fast as I wanted,” but said he was confident that VA officials are on the right path.
He did not offer any new initiatives or approaches to getting the backlog down to zero over the next two years, the administration’s publicly stated deadline.
Earlier in the day, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki pledged that “we are not going to leave this (problem) for another secretary and president to wrestle.” He said the mix of new training, technology and processing rules implemented over the last four years have put the 2015 goal within reach.
Another push to hire veterans
Even though veterans unemployment has steadily decreased in recent months, Obama continued his administration’s push to boost veteran hiring among private companies.
“We are going to get companies to understand that you can’t get a better deal than hiring a veteran,” he said, drawing loud applause from the veteran-heavy crowd.
On the federal side, Obama continued his push for a Veterans Job Corps, which would place recently returned troops into police, emergency services, and public parks jobs. Congress has been cool to the idea.
The president also called on lawmakers to renew a series of tax credits for companies who hire unemployed or disabled veterans. Those breaks have been more popular with Congress, but it’s unclear if the partisan divide on Capitol Hill could end that program, too.
As with almost every military/veterans speech from politicians over the last two years, Obama used the DAV remarks to blast steep funding cuts enacted through sequestration. The cuts, passed by Congress and signed into law by Obama, don’t directly affect VA programs, but do create headaches for number crunchers in every federal agency.
Obama also took a few moments to address the controversial Affordable Health Care Act, touting new rules creating online insurance marketplaces and forbidding denials due to pre-existing conditions.
But for the veterans crowd, the main message was that the new health care rules have little impact on VA programs. “No one is taking away your benefits,” he said. “Your veterans’ health care is safe. We’re not reducing veterans’ access to health care.”