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Norwich - When L. Tammy Duckworth asked a group of military veterans to raise their hands if they waited more than 120 days for their benefits claim to be processed, about half the 20 people in the group complied, including Duckworth, a U.S. assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Duckworth, a major in the Illinois National Guard who flew helicopter missions in Iraq, told the veterans that the Department of Veterans Affairs is making progress to clear the backlog of claims.
The department announced Thursday that it was hiring 100 more workers at a claims center in Texas to decrease waiting time for veterans. Duckworth said the hiring represents more spending and more effort on the needs of veterans.
"We're looking at a population of veterans that is changing and a population that maybe we've forgotten about," said Duckworth. She said that 44 percent of women returning from service are seeking Veterans Administration help, the largest percentage ever.
Duckworth was joined Friday by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and state Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda S. Schwartz on a tour of veterans facilities in eastern Connecticut, which has the largest veteran caseload among the five congressional districts in the state, Courtney said.
The officials met with more than 60 veterans at the Preston Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9452 and at the Norwich Vet Center. Later they traveled to a veterans health center in Rocky Hill.
During her talks with veterans, Duckworth touted the increase to the $125 billion VA budget, yet to be approved.
The VA expects a 30 percent increase in benefit claims over last year's levels, and because of that the 2011 budget includes funding for hiring more than 4,000 additional claims processors.
"The problem I hear from vets about the VA health care is not the quality of it, it's the access to it," Duckworth said.
Duckworth said the claims processing system was a lot of "paper-based work" and hoped to speed up that process with the hiring of more workers and an eventual switch to an electronic record-keeping system in the next year or two.
The electronic system would track a veteran from nearly the moment he or she files the first paperwork until the day he or she is buried, Duckworth said. It would eliminate the burden currently on veterans to prove certain injuries and health issues and eliminate bureaucratic delays.
During a question-and-answer session in Norwich, one woman asked Duckworth about using the former state hospital site in Norwich to build a veterans hospital. Duckworth said a veterans clinic, rather than a major medical facility, might be more realistic.
Courtney noted that Preston owns most of the property. Building a new veterans hospital is also based on the number of veterans in a certain area, so if more veterans were to register, it would help Courtney's office fight for a medical facility in the area, the officials said.
Many of the questions asked of Duckworth were about veterans' individual health and claims issues. Some veterans said they attended Friday's events specifically to talk to Duckworth about their problems.
"That's why I came," said Jonathan Hasara, an Army aviation veteran from Uncasville who had a retirement benefits problem. "If anyone could understand the issue, she's … the person to talk to."
In 2004 Duckworth was shot down during a mission north of Baghdad when her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. She continued to fly the helicopter until passing out from blood loss, according to her biography. She lost both of her legs and the partial use of one arm.
Another veteran, William J. Strong Jr. of Norwich, served in the Air Force and said one of his claims for surgery was rejected. He voiced concerns over treatment at the state veterans hospitals.
Strong said he was satisfied with Duckworth's response that his is the type of issue the VA is working on, but he would wait and see if results would come.
"I thought she gave me what I wanted to hear, but it's not hearing from her what I want to hear, it's getting results from her organization that matters."
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