Guest article follows: my own experience with the VA duty to help gather evidence to supportveterans' claim was quite painful. For verification of Agent Orange claims the VA turns to the Department of Defense Joint Services Records Research Center (JSRRC) for confirmation of exposures outside Vietnam. Despite the fact that JSRRC serves as the VA research authority, for years VA succeeded in blocking JSRRC input vital to confirm our exposures aboard C-123s to the VA.
FACT: VA would not accept the JSRRC input, even though it is required to at the VA Adjudication Manual M 21 – 1MR.
FACT: even though JSRRC confirmation eventually reached the VA, VA failed to act on it in violation of its own regulations, because individuals at VA were determined to, in the words of its consultant Dr. Alvin Young, "hold the line" against our disability claims. This was on their personal prejudice and their office unofficial personal policy of blocking our claims.
When I first learned that the JSRRC did not have all the material it needed about our aircraft, I had it sent to them by the Air Force Office of Historical Records Research, by the CDC, by the US Public Health Service, by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, by medical schools and schools of public health all across the country. I visited the director of the JSRRC, Mr. Dominic Baldini (a Coast Guard veteran) and was impressed by his desire to serve the needs of America's veterans. That is, if VA would allow him to do so.
The JSRRC is in Fort Belvoir Virginia and I wanted to get there so badly I had to take my wheelchair four miles from the bus drop off point to his office where I was warmly received by Mr. Baldini and his staff. And four miles back to my bus after that meeting.
The VA contact for the JSRRC was Mr. James Samsel who ran the VA Agent Orange desk, and it was his responsibility to liaise between the two agencies. The problem was Mr. Sampsel kept telling the JSRRC it would not accept input about our exposures for a variety of reasons cited in different ways over the years.
When Mr. Sampsel said he would not accept scientist or physician input except for military officers, we had it provided by commissioned officers of the US Public Health Service who are considered by law serving military officers.
Then Mr. Sampsel wouldn't accept input because he hadn't specifically requested it from the JSRRC. Another method Mr. Sampsel used to block JSRRC confirmation of our exposures was to insist only federal government documentation would suffice. This is despite VA Adjudication Manual 21 – 1MR stating JSRRC is responsible for gathering evidence from all the federal government agencies. In his zeal to block C-123 veterans' claims, Mr. Sampsel apparently decided the CDC, US PHS, NIESH and other Federal sources would not suffice because they too directly confirmed the veterans exposures and abused his intent to deny VA medical care and compensation.
By 2013 the JSRRC and Mr. Baldini had had enough grief for me about this that they simply force-fed confirmation of my exposure to Mr. Baldini by sending him an email. This didn't seem to help much because Mr. Samsel simply refused to act on it and the issue finally was resolved only by Secretary McDonald and his interim final rule published in June 2015.
But Mr. Sampsel should still claim victory because he personally blocked 2100 C-123 veterans claims for four years and blocked us out of VA hospitals and denied us compensation for our injuries and illnesses. His great respect for his friend Dr. Young have much to do with his motivation and his shouting throughout the VA for many years that he had "an overwhelming preponderance of evidence" against our claims – evidence consisting only of the VA webpage saying so, plus his preference for input from Dr. Young rather than the CDC, US Public Health Service and all the other authorities supporting our claims.
In the end the Institute of medicine study clearly established our exposure injuries but it was only a partial victory against the clear victory Mr. Sampsel enjoyed in keeping us from the VA hospital for four years. Contrary to law, his department was anti-claimant, adversarial, and obstructionist. He succeeded in "holding the line" against our claims as recommended by his favored consultant, Dr. Al Young.
CONCLUSION: VA hurt us through intrinsic and extrinsic ethical failures, none of which remain addressed today.
By Kevin Courtney November 22, 2016 Updated: November 22, 2016 10:06pm
The Navy’s Blue Angels performed jaw-dropping maneuvers and inspired our next generation’s service members during San Francisco’s Fleet Week last month. Unfortunately, those future sailors and Marines might end up like today’s veterans, suffering from a failing U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to reflect on how we can best serve our veterans and their families.
Veterans’ benefits claims may go undecided for more than a year, an unimaginably difficult year for those who haven’t experienced it. Our newly elected government leaders should address how the VA can better care for our veterans.
Today, the VA has a duty to assist veterans in preparing their claims by getting complete and relevant records from any federal agency. Congress created this “duty to assist” by passing the Veterans Claims Assistance Act in 2000. Under this standard, the VA must “make reasonable efforts to assist the claimant.” But what happens when a reasonable effort falls short of accurate or complete records? Deciding a claim based on inferior records likely requires an appeal, and the veteran will consequently suffer unnecessary financial and emotional stress.
The U.S. Supreme Court believes the VA should be a “pro claimant” and “non-adversarial” department when deciding claims because it is the sole agency responsible for providing federal benefits to veterans and their families. And there are two features built into the VA’s claim process to help veterans: first is the lack of a statute of limitations for bringing disability claims. A statute of limitations is usually the maximum amount of time after an event a veteran can bring his legal claim. The second feature is the VA’s more liberal burden of proof, which should allow it to decide in the veteran’s favor when the evidence supporting his claim is only 50/50. But are VA employees following these standards?
Congress has increased the VA’s budget every year over the past decade, so insufficient funding is not a reason why the VA fails to be “pro claimant.” While VA executives continue to receive performance bonuses, veterans are left waiting for help. It is important for President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of veterans affairs to change the ethos found within the VA, improve its efficiency and ingrain compassion in employees. There are thousands of dedicated, caring VA employees, but some require a reminder that behind every claim is a veteran who honorably served this country. And they need the VA’s help before it’s too late.
Twenty veterans commit suicide every day in our country. If the VA streamlined its system, then some of these veterans might get the timely help they need.
The VA has an obligation to realize its mission: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.”
This Thanksgiving holiday, consider the benefits you enjoy thanks to a veteran. Then consider how you want the VA to treat our veterans.
Kevin M. Courtney is a student judge advocate for the U.S. Marine Corps and a second-year law student at UC Hastings College of the Law. When the VA denied his claim for his father’s service-connected death, he spent the next four years trying to understand how the bureaucratic system functioned — or failed to function.