President Obama on Sunday marked Veterans' Day by laying a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and pledging to improve veterans' access to health care.
"No one who fights for this country overseas should ever have to fight for a job, or a roof over their head, or the care that they have earned when they come home," Obama said.
However, some health experts say that veterans are doing just that. According to Craig Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah, the Veterans' Affairs (VA) health system is overwhelmed. As of last week, approximately 896,000 disability compensation and pension claims were pending, and two-thirds of those claims had been pending for more than the agency's 125-day target processing time.
Nearly one million troops are expected to become veterans in the next five years, which may exacerbate the backlog of requests.
Obama addressed the backlog on Sunday, saying that he "won't let up" in reducing the backlog of disability claims. "No veteran should have to wait months or years for the benefits that you've earned," he said.
Meanwhile, an Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report finds that less than 50% of veterans receive full mental health evaluations within two weeks of requesting them, as is required by the agency. It takes an average of 50 days for a veteran to see a mental health provider.
The OIG report challenges the VA's claim that 95% of first-time patients in 2011 received a full mental health evaluation within two weeks, amidst surging suicide rates.
An estimated 1,600 to 1,800 veterans receiving VA care commit suicide each year, according to another OIG report from March 2011. Moreover, an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report from July found that, for every soldier killed on the battlefield, 25 veterans die by suicide (Dexheimer, Bloomberg Businessweek, 11/11; Reiny, Reuters, 11/11; Miller, Bloomberg Businessweek, 11/12).