Health

Disabled and waiting: Veterans' appeals can take 5 years or more

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) (L) and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald visit before a hearing of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. The VA leaders testifies about the future of the VA following the publication of the Commission on Care Report.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) (L) and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald visit before a hearing of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. The VA leaders testifies about the future of the VA following the publication of the Commission on Care Report.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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It's been almost 50 years since James Clarke joined the Marines. He served on the flight line in Vietnam, fueling aircraft 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. 

"I'm proud to say I was a member of the Tomcats," Clarke said.

More than 10 years ago, Clark filed a disability claim associated with his Vietnam service. He’s survived throat cancer and lives with chronic artery disease.

It took the VA four years to deny the claim.

"They turned me down in 2009," Clarke said. "I filed an appeal, and you never hear from them. I'd go over to the regional office from time to time. And 'Oh, yes sir, Mr. Clarke, we're still working on it,' and nothing."

Clarke went to the Veterans Advocacy Clinic at Stetson College of Law in Gulfport, Florida for help. Law students developed his claim by finding background material about his time in Vietnam and gathering medical details.

Then in late 2015, with the Stetson Veterans Advocacy Clinic representing him, Clarke finally made it before a Board of Veterans Appeals judge.

The judge agreed that Clarke's disability claim was connected to his service and Agent Orange exposure. She ordered the VA to give him an exam to rate the severity of his disability.

Vietnam veteran James Clarke waited six years to have his appeal heard after the VA denied his disability claim. He's still waiting for the VA to decide how much compensation he deserves.
Vietnam veteran James Clarke waited six years to have his appeal heard after the VA denied his disability claim. He's still waiting for the VA to decide how much compensation he deserves.
Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media

Cases like Clarke's are why VA Secretary McDonald supports legislation currently working its way through Congress.

"The appeals process is 80 years old," McDonald said. "By 2036, it will take 10 years to get an appeal decided. That's too long. That's unacceptable to me, and it's unacceptable to other veterans. We need to change the law."

The U.S. House has passed the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016 (HB 5620) that would streamline the appeals process and provide additional resources. The VA is pushing for the Senate to consider the legislation before Congress adjourns for the year.

But while veterans' advocates agree the process needs to be changed, they’ oppose some parts of the legislation.

"The disagreement comes in as to how best to readjust the system," said Trista Miller , an attorney with the Stetson Veterans Advocacy Clinic, which is a member of the National Coalition of Veterans Law Clinics.

"Efficiency is always on one hand, and due process and protecting veterans rights is on the other," Miller said.

The coalition, Miller said, objects to the reforms on two counts. It fears the appeals process will become adversarial because the reforms remove the VA’s "duty to assist" veterans. It also objects to proposed limits on veterans' rights hire attorneys and to provide new evidence to support their claims.

Miller said the coalition recommends Congress delay passage of the legislation until the group's concerns are addressed.

As for Vietnam vet James Clark, if it hadn’t have been for the attorneys and law students at the Veterans Advocacy Clinic, he says he might have given up on his claim.

"Physically I can't do more, so you're kind of relying that this is going to come through," Clarke said. "It plays at your head."

But even after his appeal was finally heard, 10 months passed before the regional VA scheduled the exam the judge ordered. And that only happened when the VA learned a reporter was following Clarke’s case.

And Clarke is still waiting — this time for the VA to decide how much disability compensation he deserves.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project -- a collaboration of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, Southern California Public Radio, KUOW-Seattle, and WUSF-Tampa.