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Newington - Veterans who file disability compensation claims in Connecticut are waiting an average of seven months for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to process their paperwork.
That's lower than the national average of 10 months. But 66 state veterans who asked for compensation more than a year ago are still waiting, including five whose claims are more than two years old.
"Today, veterans, including those here in Connecticut, wait too long to see the benefits they've earned, and that has never been acceptable," Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said Thursday.
Shinseki was at the Hartford VA Regional Office in Newington to talk about the department's new, computerized Veterans Benefits Management System, which he said will help fix this "decades-old problem" and "transform how we operate."
The VA's goal is to eliminate the backlog of claims in 2015, so that no claim will take longer than 125 days and will be processed with 98 percent accuracy.
Members of Congress and veterans have criticized the VA for its mounting backlog and its reliance on a paper-based system to process claims, which creates stacks of thick files at regional offices that are time-consuming to review.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who attended the press conference, said one complaint he hears most often is that there are seemingly endless delays at the VA.
"The VA system is still very much a work in progress and the delays are way beyond 125 days," he said.
Shinseki said he wasn't surprised that the backlog grew after 2010 because the VA expanded its list of diseases that could be considered related to military service, making many veterans eligible to apply for disability compensation for the first time. Nationwide, the VA decided 4.1 million claims in the past four years but received 4.6 million new claims in the same time frame.
State Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz said the backlog has been a problem for a long time, but some thought it was just too big to tackle.
"Progress with the leadership of this secretary is something that's heartening to all of us who have been working with the system for some time," she said.
The VA did not transition to a digital processing system sooner because it was busy implementing a similar system for the records of veterans who were going back to school using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Shinseki said. All 56 regional offices will be using the Veterans Benefits Management System by the end of this year; 42 are today, Shinseki said.
The Hartford office has about 2,600 claims pending, up from roughly 1,700 a few years ago as more veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have returned home, said Jessica Maki, the Veterans Service Center Manager for the Hartford Regional Office.
Hartford was one of the first regional offices to begin using the digital system. Since September, new cases, with only a few exceptions, have been processed digitally, and one employee said he could work on 50 percent more cases in a day, Maki said.
Eighty-four employees process claims. Now, instead of combing through a thick file for a record of a veteran's back injury, for example, a veterans' service representative can find the record quickly using a keyword search on a computer, Maki said. She compared it to using Google versus using an encyclopedia.
Several veterans who were at the office for appointments Thursday, and not for Shinseki's visit, said they thought the VA could do a better job in some areas, but they were generally satisfied with the system. Most, however, had claims that were processed years ago.
Dave Bell, a Marine Corps veteran from Ellington, said he waited nearly a year for a decision from the VA.
"The system is big and there are a lot of people in it," said Bell, 61. "All things considered, I guess they do the best they can."
James Burr, 31, an Army veteran from Manchester who served in Afghanistan, said his post-traumatic stress disorder-related claim was processed in a month, but he knows of other veterans with more complicated claims who have waited longer.
Maki said the oldest claims are prioritized. At the end of October, the number of veterans waiting a year or longer was about 120, double what it is now. The five veterans who have been waiting the longest started their claims in other states and then moved to Connecticut, she said.
In some of the current cases, the VA is waiting for a record from the veteran or from another agency, she said.
Blumenthal said he plans to talk to senior leaders Department of Defense leaders about moving forward with a system to integrate the medical records of service members and veterans, which should help speed up the claims process.
Shinseki said he is committed to ending the backlog because "we owe" it to veterans to do "everything we can do to enable them to be as successful in the communities as they were in our military formations."
"That is our commitment to them," he said.