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Obama reaffirms commitment to veteran care

WASHINGTON -- Caring for veterans is a moral obligation, President Barack Obama said Aug. 2 in a speech at the Disabled American Veterans National Convention in Atlanta.

"Every American who has ever worn the uniform must know this: your country is going to take care of you when you come home," President Obama said. "Our nation's commitment to our veterans - to you and your families - is a sacred trust."

The president lauded Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki for "building a 21st century VA," calling the administration's commitment to the veteran community "historic."

"We need to keep our military strong, our country safe and our veterans secure," the president said, noting VA's $15 billion budget increase last year, the largest hike in 30 years. The additional budget is improving health care benefits for Vietnam War veterans suffering from Agent Orange-related illnesses. Gulf War veterans also now receive care for chemical exposure during Operation Desert Storm.

President Obama also noted the elimination of co-payments for "catastrophically" disabled veterans as well as proposed legislation that would allow severely disabled retirees to draw military retirement and VA disability benefits.

"It's the right thing to do," the president said. "We've drastically improved health care across the board."

Other VA initiatives include efforts to create a single lifetime electronic medical record that veterans will be able to download from the VA website. This makes it easier for veterans to share their records outside the VA health system.

VA officials are also tackling records and claim application backlogs by hiring thousands of claim processors. VA officials are working to remove paper from the claims process, which they believe will end the backlog once and for all, President Obama said.

President Obama also recognized VA officials efforts to end homelessness among veterans and improve veteran employment opportunities.

"We're not going to be satisfied until every veteran who has fought for America has a home in America," he said.

Secretary Shinseki has spoken candidly many times during his tenure as VA secretary about his desire to end veteran homelessness. VA officials have initiatives with the Housing and Urban Development Department as well as new programs to treat drug addiction and psychological issues before homelessness can become an issue.

Initiatives such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill and job-placement programs also may help in keeping veterans off the streets, President Obama said, noting directives he's given for the federal government to make hiring veterans a priority.

"Every business in America needs to know our vets have the training, they've got the skills, and they're ready to work," President Obama said. "Our country is stronger when we tap the incredible talents of our veterans."

President Obama also spoke about improved care for wounded warriors and disabled veterans.

"We're continuing to direct unprecedented support to our wounded warriors in uniform -- more treatment centers, more case managers and delivering the absolute best care available," he said. "For those who can, we want to help them get back to where they want to be -- with their units. And that includes servicemembers with a disability, who still have so much to offer our military."

Still, the president acknowledged, much work remains for VA officials and his administration to further improve veteran care.

Servicemembers and veterans, President Obama said, have taught Americans to remain vigilant and resilient in the face of challenges.

"You are the very essence of America, the values that sustain us as people and the virtues our nation needs most right now," he said.