President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night gave veterans a glimmer of hope by promising them that they’ll receive the benefits they deserve, but many veterans groups feel shafted and tossed aside due to a marked lack of specific policy proposals.
“Nothing substantial on vets. No mention of #ClayHunt. No recognition of real problems. All sunshine. An enormous disappointment. #IAVA #SOTU,” Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), tweeted.
Hunt was a wounded Marine and veterans activist whose 2011 suicide has inspired a veteran’s benefits bill.
Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May of 2014 after a series of scandals erupted at the Phoenix Healthcare System and elsewhere across the country. Since then, investigations into at least 42 medical facilities have turned up similar findings of long wait times, manipulated records, and a poor quality of care. Veterans groups have been struggling to the hold the VA accountable, but were relieved that Obama didn’t attempt to claim that the progress toward gradual reform in the VA was a result of any of his intervention.
“We don’t want to see the president stand up and take credit,” David Gai, the national communications director for veteran service organization AMVETs, told Stars and Stripes.
The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act now has broad, bipartisan support, though it failed to pass in the last Congress after it was blocked in the Senate. But Obama didn’t mention the legislation. He didn’t even mention veteran suicides.
“Already, we’ve made strides towards ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality care,” Obama said during Tuesday night’s address. “We’re slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need, and we’re making it easier for vets to translate their training and experience into civilian jobs.”
But Rep. Jeff Miller, who currently serves as the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said that merely addressing problems with access to quality care isn’t good enough.
“Changing the culture at VA is a monumental task, and without the president leading by example it will be next to impossible,” Rep. Miller said in a statement.
Few military personnel or veterans were in the audience on Tuesday evening. The White House invited only two service members this year, matching last year’s State of the Union. Under the Bush administration, State of the Union speeches focused strongly on the military, and a large number of military service members and representatives were featured in the presidential guest box, according to Military Times. This year, Sen. Richard Blumenthal brought in Joanna Eldridge, a military widow who lost her husband to suicide in 2013. Blumenthal has made tackling the trend of veteran suicides a top priority. On January 13, he introduced The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act into the Senate, along with Sen. John McCain.
Aside from suicide, Obama briefly mentioned the need to speed up quality care for veterans. A total of 242,000 claims are still backlogged. Based on VA data, a claim counts as backlogged if it’s been pending for greater than 125 days. Since 510,000 claims are pending in total, backlogged claims count for 48 percent of claims. It’s unlikely that that the VA will meet its goal to substantially reduce pending claims for fiscal year 2015. According to IAVA, the VA will have to process 6,926 claims on average per week with an accuracy of 98 percent in order to reach its goal.
“”Veterans” have become a throw-away-mention group to pander to like many others. I guess that’s some sort of progress. Always good politics,” Iraq and Afghnistan Veterans of America CEO Paul Rieckhoff tweeted out Tuesday night in frustration.
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