A lawsuit filed today against the Department of Veterans Affairs seeks to speed up the timely delivery of disabled-veterans benefits amid what critics call a “horrendous” backlog that can delay benefits for months, even years.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asks for a preliminary injunction ordering the VA to render an initial decision on a claim within 90 days and to resolve appeals within six months. The lawsuit also demands the VA provide the court with a compliance plan.
If the VA cannot meet these goals, the plaintiffs, Vietnam Veterans of America and Veterans of Modern Warfare, are urging the court to order the VA to provide interim benefits while claims are pending, according to the lawsuit filed by Dorsey & Whitney lawyers. U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton was assigned the case.
“These vets need prompt action and they need it now,” Dorsey & Whitney partner Robert Cattanach said today at a news conference at the National Press Club. Cattanach blamed an antiquated, paper-based system and pending claims in the hundreds of thousands for creating systemic delays. “Unfortunately the Department of Veteran Affairs is failing miserably.”
The VA, which has publicly acknowledged a flawed system, said in a statement last week that an expansion of a pilot program between the VA and the Defense Department to streamline disability evaluations will speed up the distribution of benefits. The program, according to the VA, eliminates “duplicative, time-consuming, and often confusing elements” of the process. “The program expansion will allow wounded warriors a smoother and more efficient transition to getting services from the VA,” said Tom Pamperin, deputy director of the VA’s Compensation and Pension Service.
The time it takes the VA to adjudicate disability claims is “staggering,” the Dorsey & Whitney team, lead by partners Creighton Magid and Timothy Koeppl, argue in the lawsuit. These delays are only expected to get worse in the next few years as more claims are filed following the return of injured service members from Afghanistan and Iraq.
“This is tough stuff for these guys to have to deal with. But almost more disturbingly is the attitude of the very organization that’s supposed to help them. The delays in the VA’s benefits have been known for years, and the VA has consistently failed to fix them,” Cattanach said.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims recently recalled two retired judges to assist the court in “deciding an unprecedented number of appeals,” Chief Judge William Green wrote in an order in August. But the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed today contend adding more judges to hear cases isn’t enough. “The delays cannot be fixed by adding more judges, even a lot more judges, or more people at the regional offices. The pipeline is just too clogged,” Cattanach said.
“This lawsuit is a rifle shot. It’s narrowly focused, looking at just delays, and a fix of interim benefits that is easily implemented by the VA at the judge’s order,” Cattanach said. "The VA’s problems are so enormous, so pervasive, that you can’t fix them in one fell swoop. So what we have done is to say let’s just fix one thing and fix it now.”