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Elderly Filipino Veterans Met With Delay, Denial at VA

Philippine News/New America Media, Investigation, Cristina Pastor Posted: Mar 02, 2010

Editor's Note: This story, which originally appeared in the Philippine News, was produced as part of NAM's Stimulus Watch coverage and was funded with a grant from the Open Society Institute. It is the second in a two-part series. You can read part one here.

Franco Arcebal Testifies Before CongressFranco Arcebal, 86, testifies before Congress. He's been waiting
almost one year for his claim to be either granted or denied.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is largely blamed for the slow pace of processing of Filipino veterans equity claims. But this observation is tempered somewhat by the staggering number of veterans who would apply for the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation (FVEC) fund more than 41,000!

This number is more than double the 18,000 veterans Congress authorized to be paid.

So far, the VA said it has made decisions on approximately 21,000 claims. Total payouts are approximately $146 million.

There are false claims and there are duplicates, said (retired) Brig. Gen. Victor Corpus, head of the Philippine Embassys Veterans Affairs office. There would also be incomplete claims, added the VA. All this would definitely clog up the system.

But with thousands more claims still under review, Corpus said the agency is likely to run out of money before it grants every legitimate claim.

VA Unable to Predict When it Will Process Claims

The National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity (NAFVE) advocacy group said the process itself encourages duplicate applications.

There was a glitch where applicants were not getting confirmation of receipt of their applications from the VA so they submitted duplicate and triplicate applications, which also need to be processed, NAFVE national alliance coordinator Ben de Guzman pointed out.

CorpusBrig. Gen. Victor Corpus (ret),
head of the Philippine Embassys VA office. Ph: C. Pastor
In a response emailed to this reporter, the VA said it is unable to predict the volume of additional claims and is unable to predict a future processing completion date. No elaboration was made on the procedural bottleneck. Which is not at all encouraging to veterans Celestino Almeda, 92, and Franco Arcebal, 86, and thousands more whose patience is wearing thin.

The people are in their death beds, please put more compassion in your job, Almeda recalled telling Jon Skelly, director of the VA Manila Regional Office, in an Aug. 20, 2009 teleconference with the VA.

Almeda, who served with the USAFFE, said he has submitted all the required documents, including duly signed special orders from the U.S. Army on where the assignments would be and his discharge papers. He said he is a recognized veteran in the Philippines receiving monthly pension from the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO).

He is also a veteran recognized by the U.S. government, being a recipient of Supplemental Security Income and other benefits, and a holder of a veterans ID issued by the VA.

I have all my records, he said. The VA photocopied my records and notarized them and promised to send them to Manila.

Arcebal said he, too, is a holder of the ID issued by the VA, and has submitted all his papers to support his application. Like Almeda, hes been waiting almost one year for his claim to be either granted or denied.

This, despite earlier assurance from the VA of a turnaround time of 90 days.

The veterans said they understand the volume of work involved, and have made suggestions to the VA to ease the process. One is the setting up of an express lane for veterans who have more or less been in the system, including those who have been recipients of partial benefits and ID cards from the VA, as well as those who have become naturalized citizens.

Were accredited veterans, and they should pay us right away, said Arcebal.

Not on the List

Comparing their situations, it seems Arcebal is one point ahead of Almeda because Arcebal's name appears in the National Personnel Records Center -- also known as the Missouri List -- an official database of all personnel who served in the armed forces in the 20th century, which is housed in St. Louis, Missouri.

Im not in the Missouri List, declared Almeda.

Many Filipino veterans who served in World War II are in this list, and two of them are Alberto Bacani and Arcebal. Bacani is the first recipient of the FVEC check issued on April 8, 2009. However, being in the Missouri List does not give Arcebal an advantage over Almeda. Both are still in the wait list.
The Missouri List is important, according to (retired) Maj. Gen. Tony Taguba of the VAs Center for Minority Veterans. This list is an authoritative source of reference.

It could be a reason for rejection (if your name is not in it), added Corpus.

But the Missouri List is also incomplete and, from some accounts, not entirely updated. A 1973 fire destroyed 80 percent of the records for U.S. Army personnel from 1912 to 1960, according to its website -- www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/fire-1973.html: A complete listing of the records that were lost is not available.

The cause and extent of this fire remains a mystery, said San Francisco lawyer Gordon Erspamer who has litigated veterans cases pro bono for about 35 years. Still, its being used by the VA as a convenient excuse or ruse for delays in decisions.

If they dont want to give you something, they say its probably burned in the fire, he said. Or we have no record of them being here, theyre probably destroyed in the fire.

More discouraging information about the Missouri List came to light during the U.S. congressional hearings, said Veterans Service Officer Percival Abu of the Philippine Embassy.

In 1946 when we (the Philippines) were granted independence, the consular officer who was assigned by the U.S. Congress to get the official records of all U.S. Army personnel was called back to the U.S., said Abu. Therefore, he incompleted the task of collecting all the records of those who participated in the war.

The VA acknowledged time is of the essence and said it is taking steps to address the large amount of claims.

Elderly Veterans Die Waiting

Estimates put the number of eligible veterans in the U.S. and the Philippines currently at 15,000, down from 18,000 with a casualty toll of about 3,000 since the bill was approved last year.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said the Manila office began accepting applications for the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation (FVEC) fund on February 17, 2009. Procedurally, all applications are sent to Manila, including those from U.S.-based veterans. After only two months, or by the time the first veteran, Alberto Bacani, received his equity check on April 8, 2009, the claims had swollen to 28,000, far in excess of the 18,000 benchmark.

To prepare for the additional duties, the VA Manila Regional Office, led by Jon Skelly, promptly hired 15 new employees and assigned three current employees to process claims. These 18 individuals are processing FVEC claims full-time, said the VA in an email response to questions.
Within the first two months from the signing of the law, the VA said it established an adjudication process, payment system, accounting system, and payment delivery system to ensure the successful delivery of payments.

As the Missouri List comes from the Department of Defense, this led to the involvement of a second federal agency. The Missouri List or the National Personnel Records Center based in St. Louis, Missouri -- is the official database of all personnel who served in the armed forces in the 20th century. It was widely believed being on the list was an assurance a claim would receive prompt attention.

The VA may be the implementing arm of the FVEC, but the records are being maintained by another agency, the DoD. The transmittal of records from one agency to another could also take some time, pointed out Veterans Service Officer Percival Abu of the Philippine Embassy.

There is no master list of eligible veterans, the VA said in what seemed like a response to assertions that accredited veterans currently enjoying benefits such as Franco Arcebal, 86, and Celestino Almeda, 92 -- should have jumped the process.

Each claim is unique and decided on its own merits, said the VA.

The VA said the DoD likewise increased its staffing to enable it to handle 8,051 requests (as of press time) for service verifications in Missouri. The two agencies are working closely to process the large amount of claims, the VA said.


Lawyer Gordon ErspamerLawyer Gordon Erspamer has been
representing veterans for 35 years.
Of the 6,777 claims denied (as of press time), the VA said approximately 550 have been appealed. According to the guidelines, the veteran has one year to file an appeal with the Board of Veterans' Appeals (BVA) stating he disagrees with the decision. Once the appeals process is in motion, a hearing may be granted if requested by a veteran. The veteran may be assisted by a lawyer or a representative from his veterans organization. Ret. Brig. Gen. Victor Corpus, head of the Philippine Embassys Veterans Affairs office, said his department could be counted on to assist in any and all the steps of the process.

Each appeal is different, said the VA, but did not give a timeframe on a decision. Some can be decided more quickly than others based on the unique merits of the case.

If the case of Rsonny Sampayan is an indication, it could take up to 10 years!

Sampayan is not a World War II veteran, but served with the U.S. Air Force in Europe where he injured his back. He filed a disability claim and disputed the result of the adjudication giving him only 20 percent of his pension; his appeal remains pending to this day.

Weve been going back and forth, with me giving them more documents, and they coming back to me saying we need more paperwork and so on, Sampayan, a veterans advocate in the New York-New Jersey area, told this reporter.

He is not saying the same fate would happen to veterans applying for FVEC funds, but only that the VA does not seem to realize the urgency of having the benefits reach a sickly or disabled veteran in a timely manner.

Delays are very endemic of the VA, said lawyer Gordon Erspamer of the San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster.

Erspamer, the son of a veteran, has litigated veterans cases pro bono for about 35 years. Many of his cases involved different types of procedural delays, some involving outright criminal acts.

He cited the 1995 case of Board of Veterans' Appeals lawyer Jill Rygwalski and another case in 1994 involving attorney advisor Lawrence Gottfried. Both defendants pleaded guilty to destroying documents in disability cases. What Rygwalski did, according to court papers, was to purposely destroy veterans documents to make it appear the claims were incomplete so she could have the cases remanded, or sent back for review. She did this, she said, to provide the appearance she was a diligent and productive lawyer who disposed of her case files promptly and efficiently. The result, according to Judge James Robertson, was that Rygwalski unnecessarily delayed the disposition of cases.
Gottfried figured in a similar case of systematically and repeatedly destroying documents, according to court papers. The court ruled that Gottfrieds actions have impaired the VAs mission and obligation of insuring that disabled veterans receive the benefits to which they are entitled. Gottfried and Rygwalski each received a 15-month jail term.

To understand the delay being suffered by Filipino veterans, Erspamer said there is need to understand how the VA operates.

Think of an organization so large, where 99 percent of them are the same people theyve had for many years. Theres low turnover; many of them are (protected by) civil service and very hard to replace, he said.

The bureaucracy is an agency, he continued, where there are some who have good motivation, some who see it as their job to protect the public fiscally, some who get very jaded after working there for many years, some who are liars, and some who are just dumb.

In some instances, he said, the VA has exhibited a combination of incompetence and hostility towards veterans. "They sometimes think most veterans are liars.

Through all the brickbats, the VA said it understands that time is of the essence, and it was committed to processing all claims received by the Feb. 16, 2010 deadline.

We do not take our responsibility lightly. We are committed to delivering these benefits in a compassionate and timely manner, it said.

Its a shame that we cant move it more quickly, noted Walter Lohman, director of The Heritage Foundations Asian Studies Center. He remained optimistic the VA would find a way to compensate all eligible veterans, including perhaps extending the deadline.

The slow pace of processing should not be a reason to punish the veterans, he said.

Related Articles:

41,000 Filipino WWII Vets File for Compensation

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