State official ‘optimistic’ that huge VA benefits backlog will be tamed

Buoyed by a visit from the head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, state Veteran Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz said Friday she is optimistic for the first time in a long time about making it easier and quicker for Connecticut veterans to get their disability compensation benefits.

She was reacting to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki's visit to Connecticut the day before. Shinseki praised the Hartford regional office for its backlog reduction and outlined plans to expedite claims decisions for veterans all over the country, some of whom who have waited more than a year for compensation.

"For the first time there's hope that we will tackle this problem," Schwartz said.

This is welcome news for many veterans in Connecticut where an enormous backlog means some have waited years for claims to be processed and have found the process bureaucratic and frustrating.

Shinseki announced that the department would make provisional decisions on the oldest claims to allow qualified veterans to begin collecting benefits as soon as possible.

"The quicker the better," said Alfonso Littles, a Vietnam veteran from Bristol. "A lot of people right now are trying to get their stuff through."

In addition, the VA is switching to a computerized system that will allow faster decisions rather than relying on paperwork and the U.S. mail service. The goal is that by 2015, no veteran will have to wait more than 125 days for a claim to be processed.

In Connecticut, which does a better job than many states, 40 percent of all veterans who file claims wait for 125 days or longer, Schwartz said.

The average wait time in Connecticut is 215 days, or seven months, with an even longer 320-day wait for those filing their first claim, according to an analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

James Cooley, a Vietnam veteran from Bloomfield who is fighting prostate cancer, just filed his first claim about five weeks ago.

"Hopefully it works out and things get moving quickly," he said during a visit to the Veterans' Administration Hospital in Newington.

"I think that's an improvement. I think its going to be beneficial to veterans," said Galen Philips, a veteran from East Hartford. He said he has had to wait two years for his benefits.

Other veterans at the hospital were more cynical about whether it would actually work. The veterans, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation, complained that the VA had lost or misplaced their records. They said it is frustrating to have to keep coming back and complaining for years to get coverage.

Schwartz said the backlog has been a perennial problem, particularly with some Vietnam veterans affected by Agent Orange having to wait 10 to 20 years for their claims to be processed.

"Nobody has paid any attention to this," she said.

Thursday, at a press conference, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal was critical of the VA's performance nationally, and said the country's veterans deserve better than the service the agency is providing.

She said she is gratified by Shinseki's systematic plan to tackle the problem and reduce the backlog.

"One of things that is heartening about this is that I have hope that this is going to work, that somebody's paying attention and they seem to be doing all the right things," Schwartz said.

Until now, for example, if a veteran was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he would have to come in, file a claim of disability for it, go to the VA and get an evaluation, then go to a regional office to determine if it was associated with military service, Schwartz said.

The new system will make it much easier for combat veterans to get coverage for PTSD more quickly, she said.

Another factor contributing to the backlog is the growing number of medical conditions affecting newer veterans. Veterans coming back from Vietnam typically had three to five conditions, while some coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan can have as many as 50, Schwartz said.

In addition to the federal improvements, the state veterans affairs office has been converting paper records to computerized versions. To date, the department has digitized more than 300,000 pieces of paperwork, Schwartz said.

To further expedite claims, Schwartz suggests that first-time filers work directly with a service officer at one of the VA's five district offices in Connecticut. This way, the veteran can work through each section and make sure nothing is missing to help avoid gaps and delays.

Veterans and their families can call toll free 1-866-928-8387 to find an office and make an appointment or checkhttp://www.ct.gov/ctva/site/default.asp for further information.

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