(CNN) – The partial government shutdown ended three days ago, but America's veterans may continue to feel its effects for some time.
Throughout the 16-day shutdown, efforts to clear the Department of Veterans Affairs' backlog of veterans' disabilities claims stalled, according to a department official. This delay has created concern about Secretary Eric Shinseki's ability to keep his pledge to end all backlogged claims–those older than 125 days–by 2015, the official said.
(CNN) – The mountain of benefits claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs is a result of an outdated paper process and new levels of complexity in returning troops' cases, the agency's boss said in an interview Sunday.
"No veteran should have to wait for claims. If there's anybody impatient here, I am that individual, and we're pushing hard," Gen. Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, said on CNN's "State of the Union."
(CNN) – President Barack Obama on Monday emphasized the fulfillment of his promise to end the war in Iraq and pointed to his administration's work for veterans over the last three and a half years.
"Four years ago I made you a promise. I pledged to take the fight to our enemies and renew our leadership in the world. As president, that's what I've done," he said while speaking in Reno, Nevada at the 113th convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Washington (CNN) - President Barack Obama signed a $3.6 billion bill Wednesday significantly boosting federal support for disabled military veterans and their caregivers.
Among other things, the new law expands resources available for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans' mental health counseling, provides expanded access to hospitals and clinics outside of the traditional Veterans Affairs system, and provides stronger transportation and housing assistance for homeless veterans and retired military service members living in rural areas.
The measure, which directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to designate a primary personal care attendant for each eligible veteran, also expands veterans' maternity care while offering greater counseling, training and financial aid for family caregivers.
The country's veterans are "the very embodiment of service and patriotism," Obama said. "Our obligations to our troops don't end on the battlefield. ... We have a responsibility to take care of them when they come home."
Both the House and the Senate passed the measure by overwhelming margins.
Washington (CNN) - Americans from coast to coast are getting ready to enjoy the annual Veterans Day holiday this week.
For thousands of homeless men and women who once served in the armed forces, however, the day is merely another reminder of "the thin line that exists between survival and despair," one U.S. senator said Tuesday.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 131,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey noted at a Senate subcommittee hearing on the subject.
"Veterans' homelessness is a national disgrace," he said.
"American heroes (are) huddled over a heating grate in the shadow of the Washington Monument, or curled up on a bench by the war memorials on the Mall in Washington, or trying to find shelter in cities across America."
The VA has concluded that 260,000 veterans are homeless over the course of a typical year, he added. An estimated one in four homeless men or women served in the military.
"I broke the top of my femur, so with the plate and screws, now I'm actually, two months later, able to walk - do some walking on my own," Ballard told us. "Physical therapy is coming along very well."
Once the hip is back to full strength, Ballard will need knee surgery to repair ligament damage, but he shrugs and voices encouragement at his progress and smiles a confident smile when asked about his ultimate goal.
"Get back and fight," Ballard said without hesitation. "Return to duty."
Veterans Day traditionally has been set aside more to honor those who have served rather than those still serving. But eight-plus years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a huge class of combat veterans who still wear the uniform, many of them with two or three or more deployments under their belts and perhaps more in their futures.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - The Department of Veterans Affairs is still struggling with an enormous backlog in claims for medical and educational benefits that are piling up despite efforts to diminish the paperwork, the secretary of the department admitted Wednesday.
The VA has implemented an electronic records system, but faces a flood of medical claims each month. In July alone, the VA processed 92,000 claims, but another 91,200 came in. The department has 400,000 claims in the works, with more than a quarter of them left unprocessed for more than 125 days.
"Regardless of how we parse the numbers, there is a backlog. It is too big and veterans are waiting too long for decisions," said Eric Shinseki, secretary of veterans affairs, in his opening statement to the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday.
Shinseki was pressed on the backlog by Rep. Debbie Halvorson, D-Illinois, who asked about the problem of many claims having to be resubmitted. The secretary said it was a problem of trust between veterans and the department that he was trying to change, making every employee an "advocate" for veterans.
"What I mean by advocacy is that when Shinseki walks in and says 'I want to put a claim in,' my intent is to put together the very best claim the first time with a very high probability of success," Shinseki responded. "Whatever is there right now is what we are addressing. It is a change in culture. It is a change in attitude."
WASHINGTON (CNN) - While hundreds of thousands of disability claims lay backlogged at the Department of Veterans Affairs, thousands of technology employees at the department received $24 million in bonuses, a new report says.
A report issued by the VA's Office of Inspector General said the department issued millions of dollars in awards over a two-year period in 2007 and 2008.
"The frequent and large dollar amount awards given to employees were unusual and often absurd," the report stated.
The reports also called the payments "not fiscally responsible."
Four high-level employees received about $60,000, $73,000, $58,000, and $59,000, respectively, according to the report, without sufficient justification. Another employee received a $4,500 performance award within the first 90 days of her employment from a manager who said that she did not even remember her.
The annual average award per employee was about $2,500 for both years, according to the report. About 4,700 awards and bonuses were issued in 2007, and about 5,000 in 2008.
WASHINGTON (CNN) – Families of wounded war veterans and politicians met on Capitol Hill Tuesday to urge Congress to pass bipartisan legislation that would provide services to caregivers of injured American soldiers.
Supporters and members of the Wounded Warrior Project - which raises awareness of injured soldiers' needs and provides services to them - stressed in a news conference that not enough is being done to support the people who have made significant financial sacrifices to care for injured soldiers.
"As nation, we're failing these families by not providing them the basic support they need to continue to care for their loved ones," said Wounded Warrior Executive Director Steve Nardizzi in support of the Caregiver Assistance and Resource Enhancement Act.
He also was critical of the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying it needs to "acknowledge its obligation" to families and help provide them compensation, respite care, health-care coverage, and mental health support.
WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Barack Obama pledged Monday to make good on his promise to transform the Department of Veterans Affairs, and said he would "dramatically improve" mental health aid.
Flanked by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, the president said his budget calls for a $25 billion increase in funding for the VA over the next five years - a commitment that will be tested by the needs presented by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"With this budget, we don't just fully fund our Veterans Affairs health care program, we expand it to serve an additional 500,000 veterans by 2013," he said.
He promised that the VA would "dramatically improve services" related to mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury - and said homeless veterans would be targeted for support.
"Those heroes have a home," he said. "It's the country they served, the United States of America, and until we reach a day when not a single veteran sleeps on our nation's streets, our work remains unfinished."