November 23, 2015
If they limit veterans to one appeal a claim, it makes the system more efficient at the detriment of veterans' rights.It's a veteran disability case that never ends.
- James Vale, director of benefits for Vietnam Veterans of America
Ivan Figueroa Clausell with paperwork from his disability appeals to the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Erika P. Rodriguez / For The Times)
In 1985, Ivan Figueroa Clausell filed a claim for a variety of conditions he said stemmed from a car accident while training with the Puerto Rico Army National Guard. The Department of Veterans Affairs ruled that he wasn't disabled.
He appealed and lost. He appealed again and lost again, and again and again.
In all, the VA has issued more than two dozen rulings on his case over the years. Still, he continues to appeal. Even after he won and started receiving 100% disability pay, he pressed on in hopes of receiving retroactive payments.
"I'm never going to give up," said the 66-year-old Vietnam veteran. "I don't care how long it takes."
Figueroa's is the oldest case among the more than 425,000 now swamping a veterans appeals system that advocates and government officials say is badly broken.
The appeals system does not have enough staff to handle the record number of veterans — from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as Vietnam — filing for disability payments over the last decade, then appealing when all or part of their claims are denied.
But experts point to a more fundamental problem. Unlike U.S. civil courts, the appeals system has no mechanism to prevent endless challenges. Veterans can keep their claims alive either by appealing or by restarting the process from scratch by submitting new evidence: service records, medical reports or witness statements.
Appeals that can't be resolved at VA regional offices around the country wind up at the appeals board. The 65 judges who handle cases ruled on 55,713 cases last fiscal year — an all-time high.
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