Veterans sue to end benefit delays

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Two groups representing thousands of American veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) and Veterans of Modern Warfare (VMW), recently announced that they have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks to end delays experienced by veterans applying for disability benefits. The lawsuit demands that the VA provide an initial decision on disability benefits within 90 days after claims are filed and resolve appeals within 180 days.

The groups are also asking for interim benefit awards in the event that the VA decision making process extends beyond the allowable time periods. The interim benefits, they say, will provide veterans with a lifeline of support when it is most needed.

“The failure to expedite veterans’ compensation claims creates, at best, the impression that the nation does not respect its veterans,” said John Rowan, national president of the VVA. “America’s veterans deserve more, and the VA’s failure to fulfill its responsibilities brings dishonor to our nation and can only make the call of military service more challenging.”

The VA acknowledges that it takes an average of at least six months to reach an initial decision on a typical benefits claim; the actual delay is closer to a year. Appeals of these initial decisions, which are reversed more than 50 percent of the time, take, on average, more than four years, with some stretching 10 years or more. In contrast, civilian health care plans – which process more than 30 billion claims a year – process them and their related appeals in less than three months.

“As a matter of both policy and practice, the VA subjects veterans to long delays before receiving any of the benefits to which they are entitled,” said Donald Overton, executive director of VMW. “Our hope is that this lawsuit will compel the VA to process veterans’ benefits claims more quickly and honor our nation’s commitment to those that have defended and served.”

There are approximately 25 million veterans alive today. More than 7 million are enrolled in the VA’s health care system, and approximately 3.4 million receive benefits. More than 600,000 VA benefits claims are backlogged – this number will only increase as the 1.7 million troops that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to return home.

“A soldier’s transition to civilian life is challenging. The VA’s failure to diagnose post traumatic stress syndrome promptly and accurately, and the corresponding delay in the award of benefits, plainly results in veterans being denied this critical lifeline,” said Dr. Charles R. Figley, a Tulane University specialist in the disorder.

According to the VA, the suicide rate among individuals in the agency’s care may be as high as 7.5 times the national average.

Veterans put their issues up front and center in the recent elections.

The AFL-CIO Union Veterans Council focused on issues including education and health care benefits, housing, jobs and retirement security.

More than 2 million union members and even more union retirees are veterans, making veterans’ issues critical to a large percentage of union members.

In reaching out to millions of union veterans across the country, the Council focused on President-elect Obama’s support for increased veterans’ health funding and the 21st Century GI Bill, and contrasted it with McCain’s poor record on this issue. Obama pledged to strengthen and expand VA health care, and, the Council noted, he had the record to back it up.

Council President Mark Ayers, who is also president of the AFL-CIO Building and Trades Construction Department, said that the efforts of the Council helped engage and energize union veterans.

He said, “The Council united over 2 million veterans and union veterans in the effort to turn around America and create an economy that works for all. Our first effort was to engage veterans in the election through education and mobilization on the candidates’ stances on economics and veterans’ issues. Veterans, hand in hand with all Americans, chose a new direction for our country.”