Editor's note: This is a follow-up to our March 14, 2007, cover story, "The VA is waiting for us to die."
About a month ago, Vietnam veteran David Best arrived at his Fayetteville home to find a large brown envelope in his mailbox. "I knew it was from Washington," he said. "It's the only big brown envelope that comes in the mail."
As Best opened it, the former Army soldier said to himself, "Lord, let it be the right decision."
For nearly 13 years, Best had battled the Veterans Administration over disability benefits for a service-related injury. During that time, the VA regional office in Winston-Salem denied his claims eight times—until September.
Best scanned the paperwork and found his answer on the last two pages.
He called his attorney, Craig Kabatchnick, director of the Veterans Law Program at N.C. Central University, which represents former soldiers in claims and appeals for free.
"We won," Best told Kabatchnick. "We won everything."
"I jumped out of my chair," said Kabatchnick, who had worked on the case for three years. "I yelled, 'We won!' People could hear me down the hall."
While Best was in the Army, he developed excruciating pain in his left knee, thigh and groin, which worsened after he was honorably discharged in 1970. Military and VA doctors couldn't find the source of his pain, but had they probed further, they may have found what Best's private doctor did: In 1989, Best was diagnosed with degenerative arthritis of the left hip. It had developed while Best was in the service because of an improper fit between his hip joint and the socket, and was exacerbated by the 40-pound packs he routinely carried on patrol along Korea's demilitarized zone. Best's arthritic hip caused the pain in the other parts of his leg. Eventually, he had to undergo surgery to replace both hips.
However, the VA dismissed the opinions of Best's doctors and refused to award him compensation—which Best says totals more than $300,000—for his disability.
At a Board of Veterans Appeals hearing last April, Kabatchnick presented a stack of medical studies, journals and documents, including statements from five board-certified orthopedists, proving that Best's knee pain originated in his arthritic hip and thus was a service-connected injury. The VA doctors were internal medicine specialists, not orthopedists.
"They thwarted my claim before and downplayed the literature," Best said. "They were out to screw me."
A 2007 Government Accountability Report criticized the VA for its extensive backlog of pending claims and inconsistent and inaccurate benefits rulings. The GAO called for "a fundamental reform of the VA's disability compensation program."
Last July, the GAO issued an update on the program, noting that the VA had improved some aspects of the program, such as the number of claims completed. However, it can take longer to process the claims, likely because of an increase in their number and complexity. It takes an average of nearly two years to resolve a claim that is on appeal—still shorter than Best's legal fight.
"It's the battle after the battle," Kabatchnick said of the appeals process.
The VA pays monthly disability compensation to veterans with injuries incurred or aggravated while on active military duty. The amount is based on the severity of the disability. In fiscal year 2008, the disability compensation program paid nearly $31 billion to 3 million veterans, according to the GAO.
The VA has not determined how much money Best will receive, although it could total as much as $3,000 a month.
Best's win has also been redemptive for Kabatchnick, who, from 1990 to 1995, worked as the senior appellate attorney for the VA's Office of General Counsel. It was his job to deny claims like Best's.
"For me, this is a moral victory," said Kabatchnick, who now teaches and oversees students, several of whom learned about the challenges of VA law through Best's case. "It usually doesn't happen this way."
And Best can finally move beyond the years of appeals and paperwork, hearings and claims.
"You're so stressed out," he said of the past dozen years. "It tears you down."