Frustrated by Pentagon efforts, Connecticut groups that work with veterans have informed some 1,500 veterans that they can apply for upgrades of “bad paper” military discharge statuses if they have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although tens of thousands of veterans nationwide are eligible to apply for PTSD-related upgrades, just 1,180 have done so, according to figures provided by the Pentagon to the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic. In 2014, then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued a policy to make it easier for veterans with PTSD to upgrade their discharge statuses and become eligible for veterans’ benefits. “Most people don’t know about it,” said Olivia Horton, a Yale law student, working on the project to contact Connecticut veterans by mail. She said frustration with the Pentagon’s public outreach “was the impetus” to contact veterans directly.
A study showing that women veterans commit suicide at six times the rate of civilian women has prompted U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and colleagues to propose legislation requiring the VA to develop gender-specific suicide prevention programs.
The “Female Veterans Suicide Prevention Act” would expand the Department of Veterans Affairs’ annual evaluation of mental health and suicide-prevention programs to include data specific to female veterans. The act also would require the VA to determine which programs are the most effective for female veterans. “With suicide among women veterans happening at an alarming rate, (the proposed bill) will help save lives by ensuring VA is providing the care, counseling and outreach these veterans need,” Blumenthal said. Co-sponsors include Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
After U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki Thursday praised the VA’s Hartford regional office as a top performer in reducing disability claims backlogs, U.S Sen. Richard Blumenthal stood next to him and strongly criticized the entire VA, saying “we owe our veterans better than they are now getting from the VA.”
Shinseki visited the regional office where officials announced a 65 percent drop in Connecticut veterans waiting more than 125 days for disability claims to be processed since January, 2012. The VA defines waits longer than 125 days as backlogged and has a goal of no such waits by July, 2015. Last September, the Hartford VA became one of the first offices in the country to convert to a paperless process designed to reduce the backlog. Shinseki said all 56 regional offices should make the change by the end of this year. “We owe our veterans everything we can do to make them to be as successful in their communities as they were in the military,” Shinseki said at a news conference at the regional office, which is located in Newington.
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 which 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.