Coming on the heels of the discovery that veterans' benefit claims forms may have been shredded in regional offices nationwide, two veterans' organizations have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs. They're attacking a related and, they say, similarly egregious problem: the time it takes for the VA to make a decision on a disability claim.
Clogged with more than 600,000 pending claims, the VA takes an average of more than six months to make a decision—70 percent more time than it took four years ago, the claimants allege. That means that disabled veterans can't access their disability pay when they're transitioning back into civilian society and need help the most, say critics.
If the claim is denied, an appeal takes even longer—an average of four years. Some stretch into decades. In comparison, private healthcare groups usually process claims in less than three months, including appeals.
In response, the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Veterans of Modern Warfare filed a preliminary injunction in a D.C. district court today against the VA. The two organizations, which together represent about 60,000 veterans, are asking for the VA to adhere to a time limit: 90 days to decide initial claims for disability benefits and 180 days to resolve appeals.
If those standards can't be met, the suit asks that veterans receive interim benefits equivalent to what a veteran on a 30 percent disability rating would receive, or $356 per month for a single veteran without dependents. That's not much, the groups say, but can be a "lifeline" for veterans attempting to adapt to civilian society.
"America has a covenant with its veterans. It always has," says Charles Figley, an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder who has declared his support for the motion. "Young men and women raise their right hand; they swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, put themselves in harm's way, and serve their country in whatever way they are asked to do. In return, America has promised that if they are injured in their service to the United States, they will be cared for."
The VA referred questions to the Department of Justice, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One veteran who says he's been scarred by the system's inefficiency is Bobby O'Daniel, a Marine Corps veteran. He returned from the 1991 Gulf War with depression, fatigue, aches, and diminishing vision that kept him from holding down a job or maintaining relationships, he says. At the age of 21, he knew his body shouldn't be feeling this way.
But when he filed for disabilities benefits, he waited more than a year for the decision. And it rated him as having a 10 percent disability—at the time, about $87 per month. That led to "13 years of anger and frustration" as he appealed the decision, he says, not to mention the "shame in having to ask for something deserved that I had already earned." His case is still ongoing.
Today's lawsuit isn't the first to target what's seen as the inefficiency of the disabilities benefits system. A class action suit by Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth last year went after the VA on a number of fronts, from charges that it made benefits decisions too slowly to that it failed to adequately augment its PTSD services. The suit was unsuccessful. Robert Cattanach, a partner at the law firm representing veterans in the current case, says that this one has a better chance of succeeding because it's more focused.
Critics within government also have aired their concerns. In recent years, the Government Accountability Office has published at least four critical reports about the VA disabilities system, stating in 2007 that the benefits program was "in urgent need of attention and transformation" and "was poorly positioned to provide meaningful and timely support" for disabled veterans. Congressional statutes mandate that the VA resolve claims in a timely manner, but they don't set deadlines.
Former VA Secretary Jim Nicholson says that during his tenure from 2005 to 2007, he pushed for a system that would expedite claims and allow interim benefits. "It didn't have enough support inside the administration or on the Hill," Nicholson says. "It was just such a dramatic departure from the way things were done."