Health care for veterans has improved in the past five years, but many veterans still wait too long for doctors' appointments and insurance claims, U.S. Rep. John Spratt told a group of current and former military men Monday.
Spratt toured a Rock Hill veterans clinic with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, who visited the area on a swing through Charlotte.
Flanked by a row of veterans outside the clinic, Spratt talked about how Congress has boosted funding for veterans' health care and other services by more than $23 billion since 2007.
The VA has added some 10,000 new processors, resulting in a 70 percent increase in claims processed since 2006.
But more action is needed, Spratt and local activists said. Spratt, a York Democrat, called the current backlog of 6,000 to 7,000 pending insurance claims "completely intolerable."
"We've been fighting wars intermittently for 20 to 25 years now," Spratt said. "Troops come home with injuries. We should have had adequate staffing much, much sooner, anticipating this workload."
Shinseki, who left without speaking to reporters, gained national prominence in 2003 after testifying to Congress that the U.S. needed more troops in Iraq than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believed at the time.
In his Cabinet post, Shinseki has worked closely with Spratt, chairman of the Budget Committee and second-ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.
Spratt faces state Sen. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, in the Nov. 2 election.
Mulvaney expressed support Monday for "all aspects of care to veterans and wounded warriors," but criticized Spratt for supporting the Obama agenda.
"A great way to have provided even more help to veterans and their families would have been to stay in Washington, pass a budget and prevent the looming tax increases," Mulvaney said in a statement.
More soldiers are returning home with combat wounds that might have left them dead in the past, said Ruskin Belk, a Disabled American Veterans commander for York County.
The military is trying to move from paper records to an electronic database that lets patients gain access to care more quickly. The goal should be to reduce wait times to 24 to 48 hours, veterans said.
Congress began taking a closer look at veterans' health care following revelations of dismal conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Reports of moldy walls, rodents and other problems prompted an apology from President Bush, who said the problems at Walter Reed were caused by bureaucratic and administrative failures.
Lawmakers pledged to pay more attention.
"It's better than it was, but we're still striving to make it better," said Johnny Robinson of Rock Hill, a former Veterans of Foreign Wars commander.