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March/april 2010

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Too Long To Wait: VVA & VMW vs. VA

BY JUDITH SPEIZER CRANDELL

Legendary Marine Chesty Puller once said, “Paperwork will ruin any military force.” Likewise, endless VA paperwork routinely causes inestimable harm to America’s
disabled veterans.

The VA has a backlog of almost one million benefit claims. This backlog will continue to increase as the 1.7 million troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan return. The VA acknowledges that it is failing disabled veterans, but appears incapable of making any meaningful changes.

While veterans wait, many lose their jobs, their homes, their marriages—and in some cases, their lives. Delayed benefits are not acceptable. Added to this is the frustration of being forced back into the failed system to file an appeal after receiving a rejection from the Veterans Benefits Administration. The VA gets the original determination wrong about 60 percent of the time, and veterans’ claims bounce back and forth between the Regional Offices and the Board of Veterans’ Appeals for years on end. Currently the average appeal lasts almost four and a half years, and has been known to languish for ten years or more. 

VVA, in partnership with Veterans of Modern Warfare (VMW), filed a lawsuit against the VA on November 10, 2008, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The suit asked for an injunction that would compel the VA to resolve initial claims in 90 days and appeals claims in 180 days.

VVA also asked the court to require the VA to award interim benefits to those being forced to wait longer than those times. As VVA President John Rowan said, “America’s veterans deserve more. Our guys are hurting and need some help. We are asking the Court to deliver a remedy that expedites compensation claims for the brave men and women who have served.”

District Court Judge Reggie Walton expressed sympathy for the veterans’ plight, but dismissed the case on June 23, 2009, indicating that veterans who had applied for benefits and were therefore in the benefit system had no right to be in court and needed to “work it out” through the VA. VVA and VMW have now taken the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which heard legal arguments for both sides on February 12. The Appeals Court is charged with deciding whether the District Court was right. A decision is pending.

Robert Cattanach of Dorsey & Whitney, who is handling the case for VVA and VMW, acknowledges that asking a court to fix everything that is wrong with the VA is a daunting task that no judge may be willing to take on, and that Congress needs to work toward a comprehensive solution. Cattanach also believes that the courts could step in to relieve the burden of delay that the VA is placing on those who already have sacrificed for their country, but that they may be reluctant to do so because the VA is arguing that only Congress has that authority.

According to Cattanach, “If the courts rule that veterans submitting a request for disability benefits have given up their constitutional rights by doing so, then Congress absolutely needs to step in, and do it quickly.” 

If, indeed, only Congress can fix the broken VA compensation system, then veterans may need to mount a grassroots campaign to bring this problem to the attention of their representatives in Congress.

“Veterans, their families, friends, and neighbors should contact their representatives in Congress,” Rowan said. “The time has come for Congress to hold the VA accountable by demanding that Secretary Shinseki take immediate action. The VA must adjudicate these and future claims in a timely matter. Veterans already have sacrificed more than their fair share on the battlefield.”

 

 

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