NORWICH—Today, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) released data about veterans and their spouses who have died before receiving the benefits they were owed from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Nationwide, in 2012, 3,959 claimants, including 2,985 veterans and 974 surviving spouses, died while a disability compensation or pension claim was pending. In these cases, if a veteran or surviving spouse passes away before the claim is processed, the VA cannot pay out any of the benefits the family is owed. The delay in veterans and their spouses receiving benefits is a result of the VA backlog, an issue that has caused about two-thirds of veterans who are currently owed compensation and pension claims to wait over 125 days for their claims to be processed. In Connecticut, veterans wait on average 213 days for a claim to be processed.

“It's absolutely unacceptable that people are dying while waiting for the backlog to clear,” said Murphy. “The numbers we found were actually stunning – literally thousands of veterans and their spouses have died while waiting for the benefits they earned. We need to renew the conversation with the VA about workable solutions to fix this disaster. Moving forward, we need to prioritize claims for frail vets and spouses who have been waiting for far too long for the benefits they’ve earned. People like Lucille Cleary deserve better.”

Murphy’s office has dealt with a number of cases relating to this issue. At today’s press conference, Murphy was joined by Pat Moores, whose mother, Lucille Cleary of Farmington, tragically passed away while awaiting spouse benefits from the VA. Mrs. Cleary waited 17 months – almost 500 days – for an initial decision to be made on her claim for benefits owed from her husband’s military service. Once the initial decision was made, Mrs. Cleary began to receive some of the money she was owed. However, Mrs. Cleary passed away before the VA began to pay her the benefits she was owed during the 500 days she waited for the initial claim to be processed. The amount of these retroactive benefits was $18,000, money the VA is now unable to give to Mrs. Cleary’s family. Unfortunately, thousands of veterans and spouses pass away before they even receive an initial decision from the VA on the benefits they’re owed – these families do not receive a cent of what the veteran earned in his or her military service.

“We have an obligation to fulfill the benefits that are owed to our loved ones who fought for this country,” said Moores. “My dad was there when duty called, but the VA isn’t there for him now. This issue needs fixing immediately so other families across the country can avoid the horrible situation my family was put in.”

While the numbers from 2012 alone are staggering, data on how many veterans and surviving spouses have passed away in previous years while waiting for their claims to be processed is not available from the VA. Murphy’s office has begun an investigation into prior year veteran and spouse deaths and intends to release that information in the coming months.

At today’s event, Murphy discussed the steps he has taken to address this issue and reduce the VA backlog. Murphy is helping to lead the Veterans Legal Support Act in the U.S. Senate with U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). This legislation would allow the VA to partner with law students to work on complex cases on a pro bono basis in which veterans can have difficulty providing the evidence the VA needs to process a claim. If passed, the bill would allow the VA to spend up to $1 million a year assisting law school programs that provide legal assistance to veterans. Murphy also wrote to President Obama earlier this year, urging him to make eliminating the VA backlog a priority for veterans this year.