Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., addresses the 114th annual VFW National Convention on July 22 at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)
LOUISVILLE, KY. — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took aim Monday at the Veterans Affairs Department for a massive backlog of disability claims for veterans, calling it a “national disgrace” that the president should address.
Speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention, the Kentucky Republican said hundreds of thousands of veterans are stuck in the backlog, with the average waiting time for those filing claims at nearly a year.
“The size of this problem is a national disgrace,” McConnell said in a speech at the start of the convention meeting in Louisville.
Democrats responded that McConnell last month voted against a plan meant to reduce the waiting time for veterans. They said the proposal that drew support from a majority of McConnell’s fellow Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“Mitch McConnell’s insatiable thirst for gridlock and obstruction has hurt Kentucky veterans, and now McConnell is blatantly lying about it,” Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “The fact is Mitch McConnell voted against a bipartisan ‘10-point plan’ that would reduce the backlog. Instead of fighting for veterans, Mitch McConnell is pushing partisan political gridlock in Washington.”
McConnell said in his speech that five years ago, he supported a funding level for VA that exceeded the agency’s request by more than $750 million. His intention was to reduce the backlog, he said.
In April, McConnell signed a bipartisan letter sent to President Obama asking him to become directly involved in ending the backlog. The letter said the number of claims pending for more than a year had grown by more than 2,000 percent in the past four years. Senators signing the letter included 34 Democrats.
The VA pays disability benefits to veterans who are injured or become ill as a result of active service. For years, veterans have complained that it takes too long for claims to be resolved. In late March, more than 611,000 claims, were pending longer than 125 days.
In recent months, the department has taken steps to try to deal with the backlog. The oldest claims in the system were moved to the front of the line and claims processors were required to work at least 20 hours of overtime each month. That had helped to reduce the backlog to just over 531,000, the VA said last month.
McConnell sounded unconvinced Monday. The backlog remains much larger than at the start of 2009 — when Obama took office, McConnell noted.
In the past four years, the number of claims pending for more than a year skyrocketed — despite administration promises to deal with the problem, attempts to modernize the VA’s claims system and a 40 percent increase in the VA’s budget, said McConnell, a frequent Obama critic on a range of issues.
“I have personally advocated, and will continue to advocate, the president himself to take direct action and involvement to end the VA backlog,” McConnell said.
“An issue this important demands attention from the very top,” McConnell added. “Veterans ought to be able to count on their government. And they ought to be able to count on their commander in chief.”
McConnell, who is seeking a sixth Senate term in next year’s election, noted that Kentucky is home to 339,000 veterans and 58,000 active-duty and civilian employees of the armed forces. The state is home to Fort Knox and shares Fort Campbell with Tennessee.
McConnell’s Kentucky colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, told the convention that the nation’s defense interests are weakened by U.S. “overeagerness to be involved in every civil war on the planet.” Paul spoke out against U.S.military aid to Egypt, Pakistan and Syrian rebels.
“The first and primary function of our government is a strong national defense,” said Paul, a possible GOP presidential contender in 2016.
“But so much of what Washington does today is more like an irrational offense. How does sending foreign aid to Egypt, Syria and Pakistan help our national security? In Egypt and Pakistan, they riot and burn our flag. I say not one penny more to any nation that burns our flag.”
Paul said Syrian President Bashar Assad is no friend to the U.S., but he described the largest Syrian rebel group’s fighters as “anti-American jihadists” with ties to al-Qaida.
“We have trouble telling friend from foe in Afghanistan,” Paul said. “Syria is a thousand-fold more chaotic.”
Paul also warned that U.S. arms shipped to help Syrian rebels might end up being used against Christians in that country.
He also said that by avoiding involvement in every world conflict, the U.S. could improve “a broken VA system” and provide better health care for veterans.