New law revives veteran's old claim VA now must help locate documents
By SEAN O'SULLIVAN
Albert Malcom did not suffer the kind of injury commonly associated with
The soldier's teeth were cracked and nearly shattered by a sledgehammer in
1969 as he worked in an Army motor pool in Vietnam.
After his 1970 honorable discharge, Malcom, 54, twice went to the
Department of Veterans Affairs for help. Once for his quickly rotting
teeth and once to get dentures after his teeth were pulled. He was denied
help both times.
One of Malcom's biggest problems has been getting the documents to support
his claim. Amassing the documentation to show that an injury was related
to military service can be daunting, and for years the veterans' agency
has been inconsistent with its help.
This year, however, Malcom and hundreds of veterans like him may get help
from the government in gathering the hard-to-find documents to support
In November, former President Bill Clinton signed the Veterans Claims
Assistance Act of 2000 that veterans' advocates say is one of the most
significant reforms in more than a decade.
"It changes the rules of the game," said Ronald B. Abrams, deputy director
of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a nonprofit advocacy
group in Washington. He said the law "will force the VA to do the right
The act orders the VA to review thousands of claims it has previously
thrown out and to help veterans in assembling future claims.
That assistance includes collecting needed documents and informing
veterans about what is lacking from claims that appear to be complete.
Malcom has struggled to obtain his military service record, proof that he
was injured while in the Army, and records from the free clinic in
Wilmington where had dental work done and had his teeth removed.
"I called and they kept telling me they put [the claim] off another year
or two," he said.
Tom Reed, a professor at Widener Law School and staff attorney for the
Veterans Assistance Program, said some VA offices helped collect the
relevant documents for veterans in the past, some did not.
Even that hit-or-miss support ended in July 1999, following a ruling by
the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. In the case Morton vs.
West, the VA was prohibited from assisting veterans in making their claim.
As a result, thousands of claims were often denied as "not well grounded"
because they lacked supporting documents.
The Veterans Claims Assistance Act was drafted by Congress to overturn the
Reed, who is helping Malcom, said the VA rejected Malcom's claim in 1993
without consulting his dental records. The ruling was upheld in a 1998
"Albert Malcom's case is typical," Reed said, "going nowhere for 10 or 12
Malcom's final appeal was given a fresh start when the act passed.
Because of the Veterans Assistance Claims Act, more than 113,000 cases
rejected in the wake of the Morton decision are being automatically
reviewed, VA spokesman Terry Jemison said.
Some 244,000 more claims already in the system, like Malcom's, also are
set for an automatic review under the new law.
In Delaware, about 288 claims were revived, said Tom Keenan, Veterans
Service Center Manager in Elsmere.
Keenan said the act has resulted in a backlog at the Delaware VA, with the
claims load increasing by about 30 percent since January.
Keenan said most Delaware veterans affected by the law were notified by
letter from the VA.
While the reviews are supposed to be automatic for affected cases, a
veteran can ensure that a claim is reconsidered by sending a letter to the
VA before November 2002.
VA officials caution that this only applies to cases denied as "not well
grounded" after the Morton decision in July 1999 -- and cases that already
were in the system.
Reed said he thinks other veterans who had claims denied as "not well
grounded" may ultimately be able to get their claim reviewed as well, but
the VA strongly disagrees.
Abrams, at the National Veterans Legal Services Program in Washington,
disagrees with Reed and expects the law will remain limited to claims made
The VA, however, noted that older claims that have been denied always can
be reopened if the applicant has found new evidence to support the claim.
And so Malcom, who has now gone 13 years without teeth or a set of
dentures, will continue to go without a dental appliance until his claim
Malcom said he does not have the money for dentures, and even if he did he
would not spend it on that.
Reed said if Malcom buys a set of false teeth on his own, the VA will not
help him or reimburse him for the dentures.
At most, Reed said, if Malcom's claim is upheld, he will get about $1,200
from the VA for the false teeth and perhaps $100 a month compensation for
the loss of his teeth.
So, in the meantime, Malcom continues to wait on the VA, as he has for the
past 30 years.
"When the way comes to an end, then change - having changed, you pass through."
Bruce "Doc". Melson