By DARLENE SUPERVILLE, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will cite progress in reducing the backlog of disability claims when he addresses a gathering of disabled veterans on Saturday.
The White House says Obama also will discuss research into traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among veterans and troops, as well as efforts to help veterans earn college degrees or get the credentials needed to compete for high-skilled jobs during his appearance before the Disabled American Veterans' convention in downtown Orlando, Fla.
First lady Michelle Obama will also address the veterans. Mrs. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, are leading a national effort to rally public support for military families.
A top concern for veterans is the staggering backlog of disability claims for compensation for illness and injury caused by military service.
The number of claims waiting to be processed ballooned under Obama, largely because the administration made it easier for Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the Agent Orange defoliant to get benefits.
But the backlog recently has begun to shrink due to aggressive steps taken by the Veterans Affairs Department, including requiring claims processors to work overtime and transitioning to a new computer system to help speed the judgment of claims. About 780,000 claims are pending. Currently, about 500,000 are considered backlogged, down from about 611,000 in March.
A claim is deemed backlogged if it has been in the system for 125 days, or roughly four months.
The Disabled American Veterans organization, which helps veterans access benefits, generally has applauded the administration for taking steps to address the backlog. The group also has been a staunch defender of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has promised to wipe out the claims backup by 2015.
Beyond the backlogged claims, Republican lawmakers have begun to hammer the VA on the issue of patient safety. A congressional hearing in Atlanta this past week focused on poor patient care linked to four deaths. Another hearing is scheduled for next month in Pittsburgh, where five veterans died as a result of a Legionnaire's disease outbreak in 2011-12.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said he hoped Obama would use his appearance at the disabled veterans convention to make a personal commitment to solving both issues.
In his remarks, Obama also is expected to reaffirm the administration's commitment to winning ratification of United Nations treaty encouraging countries to ensure that people with disabilities enjoy the same rights and fundamental freedoms as the able-bodied.
Led by Republican opposition, the Senate rejected the treaty last December, falling five votes short of the number needed for ratification.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.