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Gene Trotman, 59, of Waterbury, has been fighting for so long to get disability benefits from the Veterans Benefits Administration, he now wonders if "maybe they're waiting for me to die."
Trotman, an Air Force veteran who served in the early 1970s, initially sought benefits in 1991 for a psychiatric condition. After several denials, he was finally approved for disability compensation last July. But he still hasn't received any money. He is waiting for the VBA Hartford Regional Office to complete the process that determines how much he will get.
Connecticut veterans typically wait more than seven months, an average of 213 days, to have claims processed, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs figures compiled by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
As of Jan. 28, a total of 1,364 state veterans' cases were backlogged out of 2,750 who have filed claims, the numbers show. Waits longer than 125 days are considered backlogged. For appeals of VBA decisions, the average wait is more than three years - 1,181 days.
Nationally, there are 821,966 claims pending, and 71 percent (585,234) are backlogged with an average wait time of nine months, figures show.
The VA has vowed to improve. "We recognize that too many veterans are waiting too long to get the benefits they have earned, and this is unacceptable," VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey said in a recent press release.
The VA's goal is that no veteran will wait more than 125 days for a disability claim to be processed by July 2015. However, much skepticism has been expressed about whether that can happen.
The Congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO), which issued a December report on the delays, and State Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda S. Schwartz are among those raising questions about whether the goal can be reached.
"At least, they have a goal," Schwartz said, but she pointed out the VA's plan to take an "archaic" paper system to a computerized one is an enormous task. "While the rest of the world has moved on to higher technology, the VA has a very large curve. They're really behind the 8-ball," she said.
As of mid-January, 18 VBA regional offices, including Hartford, have begun the switch to a new computerized system, while the other 38 are expected to do so by the end of this year, according to a recent VA press release.
The GAO warned that backlogs could continue because the VA hasn't established a system to effectively evaluate whether its initiatives are working. "The agency risks spending limited resources on initiatives that may not speed up disability claims and appeals processes," the GAO report concludes.
The report adds, "without improved evidence gathering, VBA may struggle to meet its goal of processing all compensation claims within its 125 day goal by 2015."
The backlog isn't all due to VBA shortcomings. Additional illnesses are being covered for veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars in connection with Agent Orange and Gulf War Illness, respectively. Many of the 2.4 million veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are returning with multiple and debilitating illnesses and injuries. The GAO report states that 1 million service members are expected to leave the military in the next five years.
"The VA is overrun with claims," said Derek Coy, development coordinator for the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Coy, an Iraq War Marine, waited 13 months for his disability claim to be processed in Texas, even though he had "all my ducks in a row" in his claim. He suffered shoulder and knee injuries, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
John Shepard, a Vietnam War Army veteran from New Haven with PTSD, filed a claim in December with help from the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic. VBA staff at the Hartford office told the clinic that it would be processed in six to 12 months.
Paul Sullivan, a board member of the nonprofit Veterans for Common Sense, said the VA should have anticipated the increased caseload from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The VA knew this was going to happen and did nothing to improve the system to handle the influx," he said.
Schwartz said she has heard of veterans submitting claims for as many as 50 injuries, which are reviewed one at a time, making the process longer.
Sullivan maintained that while waiting for claims decisions, "veterans are losing their houses to foreclosure, being evicted from apartments, having cars repossessed, can't pay their bills and their credit is being destroyed."
According to Veterans for Common Sense, nearly 20,000 families received disability benefits last year after veterans, waiting for benefits, died. "That's a shocking disgrace that so many veterans died while waiting on VA claims," the group said in a statement.
The group recently lost a court battle in which it sought an avenue for class action lawsuits to be brought in Federal Court to challenge delays in processing claims. Veterans can now file individual lawsuits in Federal Court. But, Sullivan said bringing an individual court case isn't easy.
A lower court ruling against the veterans' group was unsuccessfully appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in January, announced it will not hear the case.
"Basically, we were arguing the entire system is broken," said Sullivan.
Margaret Middleton, executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Clinic, agreed. The system "is so riddled with inefficiencies and errors," she said, "that even a flawless electronic records system cannot fix the problem." The VBA "needs a massive overhaul and more staff and financial resources to do their job effectively," she said.
The VA said it would reduce its error rate in processing claims to 2 percent by 2015. It is now at 14 percent, according to the VBA. But the VA's independent Inspector General placed the error rate at 30 percent.
Schwartz urged that veterans filing claims get free assistance from veterans' service officers in her department or at the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars to help insure that they are filling out their claims properly. Veterans may contact: the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs, 866-928-8387; American Legion, 860-594-6600; VFW, 860-616-2360.
Veterans' illnesses and injuries must be service-connected to be eligible for disability compensation. If approved, the VBA assigns a percentage rating based on the severity of disability and its effect on a veteran's life. Schwartz said a soldier without dependents with a 100 percent rating receives $2,769 a month.
Shepard, the Vietnam War veteran, was previously rejected for disability benefits. He received a Bronze Star for valor after jumping from a helicopter and singlehandedly rushing into enemy fire and destroying a bunker. Another time, his platoon leader died in his arms when their company was hit with enemy fire. After that, he refused to fight, and received an "other than honorable" discharge. A Yale psychiatrist concluded that the two dramatic experiences caused PTSD, a diagnosis not yet identified in 1969 when the veteran was in Vietnam. The psychiatrist reported that Shepard's subsequent refusal to continue fighting was the result of PTSD. The Yale Law Clinic started his case again from scratch.
Schwartz said she is encouraged that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and Hickey are motivated to improve the system. "We had a lot of secretaries who felt it was just too big to even think about. They're taking a bite out of it and that is progress," she said.
This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (www.c-hit.org).