Daniel Passmore has nine titanium screws in his left foot and six in his right from injuries he sustained when he jumped off an Army vehicle.
After three surgeries, the Waterbury veteran he is in so much pain that it is difficult for him to stand to do his job as a machinist. But for him, the financial and mental toll has been even more devastating.
He was forced to file bankruptcy because it took nearly nine months for him to get any compensation for his medical claims from the Veterans Administration.
“There’s nothing worse than, as a man, to have control taken away from your ability to take care of your family,” said Passmore, who has a wife and two daughters.
Dealing with the VA to get his claims processed was like being caught in a spider’s web, he said.
“The more you struggle, the more you get tangled in that web,” he said.
Passmore was among four veterans who spoke at a roundtable discussion hosted by Sen. Richard Blumenthal at the state Capitol Thursday. Blumenthal said he arranged the press event to “give a face and a voice” to the toll the backlog is exacting on Connecticut veterans.
“Our veterans should not be forced to wait and wait and wait for months and sometimes years for claims to be processed and appeals to be decided … for disability or harms they’ve suffered while serving the nation,” Blumenthal said.
Vietnam veteran Mikell Kiersey, 59, of East Granby, also talked about his difficulty getting compensation for claims dating back to 1975 when he served in a strategic air command. He said part of his trouble stemmed from the fact that he had to sign papers with the National Security Administration saying he could never talk about his secret combat missions, so he has no records showing his service.
He said he lost his house while waiting for his claims and appeals to be processed. He held up a notebook packed thick with claims paperwork.
“It’s been pretty hard to serve your country and they sort of forget about you,” he said.
Currently, 45 percent of all claims in Connecticut are backlogged compared with 64 percent across the nation, Blumenthal said.
“We’re doing better in Connecticut, but 45 percent is still unacceptable,” the Democratic senator said.
Tom Stefanko, director of advocacy and assistance for the state Department of Veterans Affairs, attended the roundtable but did not testify.
Asked about the backlog problem, he said the state has taken steps to reduce the waiting time in Connecticut to about 127 days. He said the department has done even better with “fully developed claims,” in which all available evidence is submitted in one package early on to speed up processing. Those claims are now being processed in an average of 47 days, he said.
Jim Blue, regional director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, agreed that the wait is unacceptable and noted that the department is implementing new measures to speed claims.
The department’s goal is to eliminate the backlog by 2015, with no claim older than 125 days, he said. The department is also building a paperless, digital disability claims system to help end the backlog, Blue said.
Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said he has pressed for the VA to do better and they have responded. He said the committee has just reported out a bill that establishes a means to end the backlog through new techniques, such as video conferencing. But stubborn problems remain, such as the fact that the Defense department and the Veterans Administration have separate computer systems and medical records that are not interoperable, he said.
Blumenthal said he is concerned that the backlog will only grow worse in coming months as thousands of men and women leave active duty and become part of the veterans system.