May 22, 2007 – A House subcommittee heard pleas Tuesday to get veterans off the “hamster wheel” of justice that can leave their benefits claims cycling through an unending process until they die.
The appeals process can have claims bounced between the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, a federal court, and the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, an administrative court, because of the federal court can decide a case — or not — one small issue at a time.
“For many years now, those who regularly represent disabled veterans before the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims have been using an unflattering phrase to describe the system of justice these veterans too often face: the hamster wheel,” said Bart Stichman of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a nonprofit group that has represented almost 1,000 cases before the court.
Stichman said the court’s process allows it to remand a case back to the administrative court based on a single error, without addressing any other issues in the case that could include more errors. The result, especially in a complicated case, is the hamster wheel where a case never seems to end.
“Many appellants die while awaiting appeal,” said Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs disability assistance and memorial affairs subcommittee, which held the Tuesday hearing on veterans’ appeals.
“This is not the desired result,” Hall said dryly.
He described the appeals system as a “system of injustice” for many veterans, and warned that something needs to be done before the VA is flooded with claims and expected appeals of claims by veterans of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
“We face an unprecedented challenge as the number of compensation and pension claims increases faster than VA’s ability to process them,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado , the panel’s senior Republican, who noted the number of pending cases has doubled in the past three years.
Lamborn said the policy of deciding one issue at a time may have some rationale, “but it seems inefficient.”
“This stretches the appeals process for often aging veterans by years,” he said. “Our veterans deserve the best benefits delivery system we can provide.”
Chief Judge William Greene Jr. said the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims expects the backlog of cases to continue growing. In fiscal 2006, the court decided 2,842 cases but had 3,729 new cases filed. In the first half of fiscal 2007, the court has received its highest number of new cases ever, 2,542, Greene said.
As a temporary measure, and under pressure from Congress last year, the court recalled some retired judges to help handle cases. Greene said the court is looking at other ways of handling the case load, including allowing it to adopt a practice sometimes used by other federal courts — simply disposing of cases without explanation.
However, a change in procedure that would allow the court to decide all issues covering a case, rather than allowing it to remand a case based on a single error, would take a change in federal law.
Stichman said the current practice of remanding for every error provides a mistaken appearance of greater efficiency. By tackling just one issue, “a judge can finish an appeal in less time than would be required if he or she had to resolve all of the other disputed issues, thereby allowing the judge to turn his or her attention at an earlier time to other appeals,” he said.
He called the policy “myopic” because the cases keep coming back on the hamster wheel.