Disabled Army vet awaits $40K from VA as sheriff’s sale looms on property
By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 12, 2019
A 71-year-old disabled Army veteran in New Jersey faces imminent loss of commercial property as he awaits long-overdue compensation of more than $40,000 from the Veterans Administration.
“I just don’t understand why people don’t get their money,” Ronald Choplinsky recently told Stars and Stripes in a telephone interview from his home in Millville, N.J. “Why do they wait so long when you’re approved?”
In a January 2018 decision, the VA Board of Veterans’ Appeals determined Choplinsky’s disability to be of greater severity than had been previously designated and that he should be compensated back to an earlier date. The decision entitled him to thousands of dollars of back pay.
“To date, they haven’t paid him his awarded money, and they have not increased his rating,” said Sally Stenton, the attorney representing him.
“Since January 2018, his case has bounced between the Philadelphia Regional VA Office and the Appeals Management Center in D.C.,” said Stenton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. “So, in 17 months, nothing has happened until I came onto this case in March this year, and now the regional office in Philly has thrown up every conceivable road block not to pay him.”
Late Friday, Stars and Stripes submitted a privacy waiver, signed by Choplinsky, to the VA media office in Washington, D.C., with a request for an interview. As of the time of publication, no response had been received.
Choplinsky owes roughly $40,000 in delinquent real estate taxes on an auto body shop he owns in Philadelphia. His father began the business, and Choplinsky ran it for most of his working life.
But the paint fumes and other chemicals forced him out when they exacerbated his medical condition, called gastroesophageal reflux disease, he said.
Another operator rents the auto body shop, but the income from that has not been sufficient to pay the real estate taxes, Choplinsky said.
A sheriff’s sale of the auto body property is set for Wednesday, Stenton said.
He has also fallen behind on the mortgage payment on his home, which he took out years ago to pay a mountain of medical bills left from his wife’s terminal illness.
Choplinsky was drafted into the Army in July 1968 and went to Fort Bragg, N.C., for basic training. The conditions during training aggravated an existing problem with his stomach and esophagus. “It was all the mud,” he said. “They made us put our face in the mud, and you’d open your mouth and mud would go in.”
During the last week of training, he was hospitalized for a month, he said.
“They were going to take part of my stomach out,” he said. Instead, he was honorably discharged in September 1968.
The Philadelphia Regional Office denied Choplinsky’s initial 1972 claim of entitlement to a service connection for his gastrointestinal condition, but the office acknowledged not possessing all his service treatment records in making that denial, according to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals decision.
Choplinsky moved to reopen the claim in October 2010, and five months later the regional office granted a service connection for gastroesophageal reflux disease – but only beginning from 2010, the date he had filed to reopen the claim.
In its decision last year, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals ordered that the rating of the severity of Choplinsky’s condition be increased retroactively to October 2010, a change that would boost his monthly benefit from roughly $140 to $483.
“That’s where the $40,000 comes from,” Stenton said.
But in the same decision, the appeals board ordered the regional office to conduct further investigation into determining whether Choplinsky’s condition was equally severe for the period between 1972 to 2010, which could potentially lead to more retroactive compensation.
The decision explicitly states that it would be “beneficial” to Choplinsky to separate the board’s settled decision from any further, unresolved questions.
The Philadelphia Regional VA Office, however, has maintained that all additional actions ordered by the appeals board must be completed before any changes in benefits payments are made.
But the first part of Choplinsky’s appeal took almost 10 years to conclude, Stenton said. “The remand could take another decade,” she said.
Stenton has demanded the regional office produce a statute or VA regulation that prevents immediate payment of the back benefits. She has received nothing.
Regardless of what is determined about his benefits in the future, there is no scenario in which Choplinsky would owe the VA money, Stenton said.
“And the VA will never owe him less money,” she said.