TRENTON, Mich.—Officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs like to say that veterans don't need expert help to file disability claims. That's because the VA is required by law to help them gather all the evidence they need.
But policy and practice are often two different things.
Consider the case of Richard Gudewicz, a Michigan veteran who contracted Hepatitis C in 1974 during a blood transfusion at an Army hospital in Germany.
It took 20 years before the liver disease was diagnosed, forcing doctors to remove his spleen and give him powerful medications that left him fatigued and unable to work as a bricklayer and school custodian.
In 2000, the VA denied Gudewicz's claim for disability compensation. The Army hospital had long since closed, and the VA said it couldn't find any military medical records archived under Gudewicz's name showing that he'd received a transfusion. His VA-accredited service officer did little to find them, either, Gudewicz said.
"All he did was do the proper forms," said Gudewicz, 52, who lives in the Detroit suburb of Trenton. Those forms and appeals merely kept the claim alive. Gudewicz said he had little chance of winning without proof of the transfusion, which his service officer never found.
In desperation, Gudewicz called the office of his congressman, John Dingell. Shanda Misiolek, then a new constituent service worker for the Michigan Democrat, took on his case. A former teacher, Misiolek had no experience tracking military records and none of the expertise of a well-trained service officer.
Yet she quickly located Gudewicz's hospital charts.
It didn't take any special congressional powers, she said. It just took some research to learn that a veteran's name isn't the only way military medical records are filed. The federal archives also keep medical records under the names of military hospitals.
That's where she found the records Gudewicz needed to prove his case. The VA granted his claim a few months later, in July 2001—two years after he first applied for compensation.
"I tend to take every case to heart," said Misiolek. "I want to make sure they get everything they are entitled to."
While claims experts caution that involving members of Congress can be risky, diverting the VA's attention to corresponding with them rather than processing the claim, Gudewicz said it was the only way to get his due.
"If it hadn't been for Congressman Dingell's office, I wouldn't have gotten anything," Gudewicz said.
VA officials disagree. In a statement, they said the VA eventually would have found Gudewicz's records.
"It is VA's responsibility to assist veterans in obtaining records in federal custody such as service medical records," the statement said. But in this case, VA staff members sent an improperly coded form to the federal archives. "There was an unwarranted delay in this case due to the regional office's error," the statement said.