Reaching Out to Military Veterans, Obama Unveils Healthcare Upgrade

In addition to a huge funding boost, Obama wants to computerize health records.

By + More

Flanked by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, President Barack Obama laid out his plans to improve the healthcare system for military veterans today and said that the "first step" had been taken on one of his key proposals: computerizing record-keeping for veterans.

Currently, there isn't a streamlined way for the Department of Defense and VA to share records, meaning that paper records have to be physically shifted from one department to the other to get claims filed. That has resulted in "extraordinary hardship for an awful lot of veterans," Obama said today, with paperwork sometimes lost and benefits often delayed for months. The VA Department's backlog of disability claims is currently at 800,000, meaning it takes about six months for a veteran to receive a decision.

Now, the president said, the two departments will develop one unified, computerized system to hold every veteran's administrative and medical record, from the first day of enlistment to death. "It's time to give our veterans a 21st-century VA," Obama said.The president also spoke about the provisions for veterans' healthcare in his $3.5 trillion budget proposal, which he unveiled last month. It includes the largest single-year increase in funding in three decades, he said, and would, over the next five years, spend $25billion more on veterans than currently allocated. Obama also plans to expand eligibility for VA healthcare, bringing more than 500,000 veterans into the VA healthcare system.

Obama strongly backed the idea of setting aside appropriations to veterans' healthcare one year in advance, which veterans organizations applaud as a way to keep congressional delays in passing the budget from affecting veterans. "What this means is a timely and predictable flow of funding from year to year, but more importantly, that means better care for our veterans," Obama said. The budget passed by the Senate included this proposal, and the budget is currently in a conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions.

As a Democratic politician and one who hasn't shied from reminding Americans that he initially opposed the war in Iraq, Obama faces challenges in being seen as pro-military. But one veterans group gave his voting record on veterans' issues as a senator a B (Sen. John McCain received a D). As president, Obama has kept the issue of veterans affairs on the public radar. Meanwhile, the first lady has made military families her signature cause. She went to Fort Bragg, N.C., in her first solo trip outside the White House.

Still, Obama has made missteps with veterans. Just a few weeks ago, he created an uproar by proposing that veterans who had private health insurance use it to pay for combat-related injuries, something they don't currently have to do. It would have saved the government about $500 million each year. But veterans organizations were infuriated and told the president that this could negatively affect employment prospects for ill or injured veterans, as well as coverage for their family members.

Obama rescinded the proposal. "We are going to do everything required to make sure that the commitment we make to our veterans is met and that people don't have to fight for what they have earned," he told American troops at his surprise stop in Baghdad this week. "As long as I am in the White House, you are going to get the support that you need and the thanks that you deserve from a grateful nation."