Published July 13. 2013 4:00AM
Norwich - Pat Moores of Farmington described her mother as "proud and independent" into her 90s, never seeking the benefits she was entitled to as the surviving spouse of a World War II veteran.
But when dementia set in, and medical bills started to pile up in 2010, Lucile Cleary's family sought those benefits from the Veterans Administration. Early on in the tedious, complicated process, Pat Moores realized the system was an obstacle course.
Her mother was forced to sign a document saying she was incapable of going through the application process herself.
"She became scared and refused to sign for months," Pat Moores said. "That is an unreasonable request to make of someone with dementia."
Cleary's family finally obtained the benefits in May. Two days later, Cleary died, and the VA revoked all benefits - based on federal law - except to cover funeral expenses.
"The bills do not go away when a person dies," Moores told about a dozen veterans and several state and federal elected officials Friday at the Richard A. Hourigan VFW Post in Norwich.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., invited Cleary to Friday's press conference to call for action by the VA to dramatically cut the backlog of veterans and surviving spouses seeking benefits.
Murphy said Cleary's case made him question just how many veterans and surviving spouses have died while waiting years for their benefits applications to be reviewed. The VA did not have past data but told the senator that in 2012 alone, 3,959 claimants, including 2,985 veterans and 974 surviving spouses, died while a disability compensation or pension claim was pending, thus negating their benefits. Murphy said about 800,000 applicants are now awaiting VA approval.
Murphy's office is seeking data from previous years, and on Friday he called for three measures to reduce the application backlog for veterans and their spouses.
"It's absolutely unacceptable that people are dying while waiting for the backlog to clear," Murphy said. "The numbers we found were actually stunning. Literally thousands of veterans and their spouses have died while waiting for the benefits they earned."
Murphy called for the VA and the U.S. Department of Defense to "takes steps today" to merge their digital data records. That move, he said, would cut months off the application process, removing the burden from families to prove service records and disability claims.
Murphy also called for finding innovative ways to help families apply for benefits. He suggested that law school students be asked to help families work through the complex applications and gather the information they need.
Wilfred Wheeler of Canterbury, who attended Friday's press conference, said veterans and their families should take advantage of free assistance offered by the several veterans' civic clubs, such as the VFW or the Disabled Veterans of America, American Legion or other groups.
To assist families in Cleary's situation, Murphy called for the VA to prioritize the applications of frail and ill veterans and spouses to allow them to obtain benefits more quickly.
Murphy acknowledged that the VA is understaffed to handle the growing caseload. The staff has doubled since 2000, but the number of pending claims has more than doubled, rising from 600,000 to 1.4 million in that period.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, shared the podium Friday. Blumenthal said he would call for a committee hearing to question why the DOD and VA digital records are not already merged and what it would take to make that happen.
He stressed that the veteran and spousal benefits have been earned and are not "a gift" of the government.
"Young men and women simply won't come forward and serve if we don't give them what they deserve," Blumenthal said.
Murphy said the separate record keeping by the VA and DOD is an example of a much larger issue surrounding how the United States funds wars and its national defense. The cost of war and troop deployment, Murphy said, doesn't include the cost of caring for veterans, their long-term injuries and disabilities and the benefits they have earned once they return home.
Standing in the audience, Norwich alderman and mayoral candidate Charles Jaskiewicz found Cleary's story and the senators' calls for action all too familiar. Jaskiewicz said his father-in-law, Albert David of Webster, Mass., also did not want to apply for VA benefits out of the same sense of independence and pride.
When his health started failing two years ago, he applied for benefits and was referred to the Providence VA center. The family asked to change the location to Worcester, Mass., closer to his home, only to learn that the entire process had to start all over again, with a physical exam and paperwork reviews, Jaskiewicz said.
David's wife died a year ago, and he died this past April at age 84. His family received notification from the VA that he now would be eligible only for "unadvanced funeral expenses" - costs David already had secured for his family, Jaskiewicz said.