Veterans Groups Brace for Disability Claims Hearing

November 22, 2011 (Wall Street Journal) – Veterans groups preparing for court hearing that could have a major impact on how disability appeals are handled.

The Ninth Circuit agreed last week to rehear an earlier decision that placed the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Board of Veterans Appeals under federal court supervision, the CPR Institute reports. That decision, issued in May and now set aside, was critical of the VA for failing to handle veterans’ disability claims in a timely manner, and allowed a federal judge to order changes to VA procedures and timetables, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The en banc rehearing was sought by the Justice Department, which argued that Congress wrote the laws concerning veterans’ health care and intended “to prevent the courts from second-guessing the VA’s performance.”

The rehearing is on the fast track and is scheduled for the week of Dec. 12, according to the nonprofit advocacy firm representing the plaintiff veterans groups, CPR Institute noted. Ron Elsberry, the managing attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, told CPR that the unusual speed with which the court is acting shows recognition “that veterans are in dire circumstances.”

Elsberry added: “We are confident that the en banc panel will reaffirm the Court’s prior ruling that the VA’s unconscionable delays and bureaucratic dysfunction in providing proper care to veterans violates veterans’ constitutional rights to due process of law.”

The veterans groups submitted a 2008 report which estimated that 300,000 veterans suffer from PTSD or severe depression, most of them having served in Iraq or Afghanistan over the last decade, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In the May ruling, the court panel noted it takes the VA an average of four years to provide mental health benefits owed veterans, and can take weeks for a suicidal vet to get a first appointment, according to the AP. CPR points out that the panel opinion noted that an average of 18 veterans commit suicide each day, and between October 2007 and April 2008, at least 1,467 veterans died while their appeals were pending.

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