March 3, 2011

State Lags In Disability Compensation For Veterans

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More than 20,200 Connecticut veterans are receiving disability compensation for injuries and illnesses connected to their military duty, with those living in New London County more likely to be receiving benefits than their peers in other parts of the state, according to data obtained from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

But statewide, Connecticut has one of the lowest percentages in the country of veterans who are receiving disability compensation – a lag that veterans’ advocates blame on inadequate outreach that may be depriving thousands of potential recipients, many of whom now rely on state resources, of federal dollars they are entitled to receive.

“It’s very vital, especially in these troubled economic times, that veterans know what benefits they’re entitled to,” said Linda Schwartz, the state’s veterans’ affairs commissioner, who said she has been pushing for more outreach staffing to help veterans file disability claims. “People need help filling out the applications, and we need the people to help them. It’s at the top of my list of priorities to get these outreach offices fully staffed.”

Only about 8 percent of the estimated 253,000 veterans in Connecticut are receiving disability compensation, a tax-free benefit paid to veterans for disabilities that are a result of, or made worse by, injuries or diseases that happened while on active duty or during training. That percentage has put Connecticut in the bottom third of states, some of which have 12 to 14 percent of their veterans receiving compensation.

Connecticut’s 8 percent compensation rate is the lowest of the six New England states, with Maine topping the list at nearly double Connecticut’s rate – 15.9 percent—and Rhode Island and Massachusetts both above 12 percent as of 2009, according to a recent VA compensation report. Those percentages could increase, as New England states have seen thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning home in the last 18 months.

The reasons why disability rates vary from state to state, and county to county, depend on other factors besides outreach efforts, including the frequency and era of wartime service.  In military-heavy New London County, about 11 percent of veterans are receiving disability, compared to a low of 6.7 percent in Fairfield County. New Haven and Hartford counties have disability rates of 9.7 and 9 percent, respectively.

Connecticut has a relatively large population of Vietnam War veterans – more than 84,000 – with another 35,700 Gulf War veterans. State veterans of the Gulf War and Vietnam had the highest average number of service-connected disabilities, according to a 2005 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General.

Officials in the state veterans’ department Office of Advocacy and Assistance say the bulk of Connecticut’s disability cases are veterans of the Vietnam War with cancer or other illnesses caused by Agent Orange, as well as a large number of Korean War veterans. They said claims by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other disabilities have begun to mushroom in the last 18 months, as troops return home.

Massachusetts does more outreach to veterans than most other states, with a Veterans’ Service Officer available in every city and town, charged with advising veterans of their rights and assisting them in applying for benefits.

In Maine, with the highest compensation rate in New England, “We actively go out and find veterans and help them file claims,” said Peter W. Ogden, director of that state’s Bureau of Veterans’ Services. Maine has seven field offices around the state where veterans can go for help in filing claims.

Ogden said there are other reasons why the state’s disability compensation rate is comparatively high, including Maine’s overall large percentage of veterans, many of them elderly, and the tough state economy, which drives veterans to seek VA compensation.

Ogden said his bureau typically files 2,000 to 3,000 new veterans’ disability claims each year.  The 22,300 Maine veterans receiving disability payments pump millions into the state’s economy, he said.

“Not only does it help the veteran get the healthcare he needs, but the money is spent in Maine, so there’s an economic engine there,” Ogden said.

In Connecticut, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has branch service offices in Bridgeport, West Haven, Waterbury, Norwich and Newington, but not all of them are fully staffed, Schwartz said. She is hoping to fill several vacant positions in the coming months and step-up outreach efforts.

“More federal dollars coming to Connecticut for our veterans helps to relieve the resources of the state,” Schwartz said. She said she is working with the state Department of Social Services to determine whether veterans who are receiving Medicaid benefits could be eligible instead for VA assistance, including pensions and health care

Schwartz said New London County has a high compensation rate because it has a large veterans’ population that is educated about military benefits.

She said the documentation required for disability claims can be daunting, and many veterans need assistance:

“There’s a saying: If you didn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder before, you will after you do all the paperwork,” she said.

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