barrel-847440_640 (1)Although thousands of veterans served in the Panama Canal Zone, the Department of Veterans Affairs does not recognize it as a place in which veterans were exposed to tactical herbicides such as Agent Orange.  Is that about to change?  Is there now sufficient evidence to convince VA that Agent Orange was sprayed in the Panama Canal Zone?

I don’t have the answer to the first question.  Frankly, I don’t know whether VA is ready to concede that Agent Orange was sprayed in the Panama Canal Zone.  I do believe that there is sufficient evidence to convince VA in individual cases that veterans have been exposed to Agent Orange in the Panama Canal Zone.  I’ll summarize and discuss the evidence for veterans who served in the Panama Canal Zone in future posts, but first, I want to explain a bit about Agent Orange and presumptive service connection for VA disability compensation.

In legal terms, certain veterans who file compensation claims for diseases or disorders linked to Agent Orange exposure are entitled to presumptive service connection.  In future posts, I will summarize and discuss which diseases and disorders VA recognizes as due to exposure to Agent Orange.

Presumptive service connection is a legal basis for awarding veterans’ disability compensation based on a presumption.  In the case of Agent Orange, certain veterans are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange based on where they served or their specific occupational duties.  The presumption acts to lessen the evidentiary burden on a veteran filing a claim for compensation.  In other words, the veteran need not provide evidence of specific exposure to Agent Orange if VA has already accepted that the veteran is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.

The most well-known presumption is for veterans who served in Vietnam.  A veteran who had service in Vietnam during a specific period is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.  Pursuant to the Secretary’s own regulations, a veteran who is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange is entitled to disability compensation for a host of diseases and disorders.  In future posts, I plan on summarizing and discussing VA’s list of locations and occupations that are presumed to have exposed veterans to Agent Orange.  The list is constantly being updated.

As of this date, VA does not recognize the Panama Canal Zone as a location where veterans were exposed to Agent Orange.  Based on my own research and experience, I have come to conclude that veterans who did serve in the Panama Canal Zone during certain periods were exposed to Agent Orange.  More to follow ….

If you served in the Panama Canal Zone and believe that you have been diagnosed with a disease or disorder that is due to exposure to Agent Orange, I invite you to contact me to discuss legal representation.  Feel free to call me at (202) 607-5731.

Sean

By nearly any metric, the Department of Veterans Affairs usually fails to achieve its mission of caring for veterans.  I’m sure that there are many categories which could be measured, but what good is any measurement if the results are kept a secret.  I don’t trust the VA to be either transparent or honest about its metrics, but if VA were more transparent, it would be a lot harder to be dishonest about its measurements.

VA maintains detailed, internal measurements about its performance in a multitude of categories, but these statistics are neither revealed to the public nor readily available to public inquiry.  Indeed, the only time that most of VA’s internal statistics come to light is when they are revealed to legislators as part of testimony to Congress.

Congress can mandate transparency, and indeed, Congress has mandated VA transparency in the past.

A number of years ago, Congress passed a law that requires the Chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals to publish an annual report.  Although there hasn’t been a Chairman at the Board for a number of years (which is a story for another day), the Board is still required to publish the annual report each year.

The Board is required to report its activities during that year and the projected activities of the Board for the current and subsequent years.  Further, the Board must provide very detailed statistics in a number of categories.  For instance, the Board reports the number of decisions it issues, and the disposition of those decisions.  For example, there were 10,876 denials of compensation claims in fiscal year 2014.

The report also lists the average amount of time it takes VA to complete certain actions.  For example, the Board reported that the average length of time between the filing of an appeal and the Board’s decision of the appeal was 1,038 days in 2014.  In other words, the Board reported that it took nearly 3 years to decide an appeal.

Of course, this statistic is important, but it’s terribly misleading.  It’s misleading because it doesn’t take into account the time it takes for VA to issue a statement of the case after receipt of a notice of disagreement, which is an average 330 days. If you add in this time, it takes the Board nearly 4 years to decide an appeal.

Now that VA has revealed these statistics, the question becomes “Should it take VA four or five years to decide an appeal filed by a veteran or a widow?”  Asked in a different way, should a disabled veteran who is homeless have to wait four or five years for VA to decide his appeal?  What if that veteran had to wait a year for VA to make the initial decision before he filed an appeal?  Is VA achieving its mission if a disabled veteran has to wait four or five years for benefits?

Metrics, the measurement of certain processes, are important.  VA compiles these statistics daily, weekly, and monthly.  They aren’t always honest about their numbers, but they are under no legal obligation to reveal their numbers publicly.  Perhaps by next Veterans Day, VA will be required to publish their compiled statistics weekly, monthly, and annually.  I call on them to do just that.

IntroducingBrokenVAAs an attorney who has spent nearly 20 years representing veterans and their families in their fight to win veterans benefits, I’m faced with an inescapable reality; the Department of Veterans Affairs is broken, dysfunctional, adversarial, deceptive, unfriendly, bureaucratic, and deliberately designed to make it as difficult as possible for veterans, surviving spouses, and orphans to collect benefits to which they are entitled to legally and morally.

My observation is neither unique, nor am I the first to make this observation. Indeed, scarcely a week passes without a story in the national or local news regarding the dysfunction of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Congressmen, Senators, and the very people employed at the Department of Veterans Affairs routinely concede that VA is dysfunctional. VA is broken.

For years, we have heard our political leaders pledge to solve the issues plaguing the Department of Veterans Affairs, only to see those promises go unfulfilled. Yet, I do not doubt that the people who work for VA are, by and large, good people. In my nearly 20 years of fighting for veterans, most of the VA employees I have met are genuinely interested in seeing that justice prevails and that veterans and family members receive the benefits to which they are entitled. And yet I believe in the inescapable reality that VA is dysfunctional. VA is broken.

I’m here to raise my voice and to advocate for change. This is why I decided to publish and publicize brokenVA.com. I’m under no legal or ethical obligation to publish this blog. I receive no payment and expect no reward. There will be no advertising on this site, and I will not sell you, the reader, any product or services. If you, the reader, find my posts or those of others who collaborate with me to be entertaining or informative, then the effort has been worth it. If the posts on this blog lead to positive change, then the effort really has been worth it.

BrokenVA.com is not simply a blog to catalogue the failings of VA, but a voice to advocate for its improvement. We seek to elevate the voices of our nation’s veterans and build momentum for real change. VA is broken, and we want to fix it.