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Budget calls for 4 percent spending increase at VA

Published: Friday, April 5, 2013 3:30 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's budget proposal will include nearly a 14 percent increase for that part of the VA responsible for attacking a growing backlog of veterans' disability claims — a problem that officials warned is likely to worsen in coming months.

All told, the Department of Veterans Affairs would see a 4 percent increase, to $63.5 billion, for such items as 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 considering 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 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.

McDonough and Shinseki discussed the budget during a round table with reporters. They 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.

The budget also calls for a 7.2 percent increase for mental health care services as part of the overall $63.5 billion budget.

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