April 20, 2015
Benefits Delayed: After as Long as 25 Months, Combat Veterans Still Waiting for Records Needed to Apply for Disability Payments, Lawsuit Says
Seven Veterans Sue Department of Veterans Affairs for Unreasonable Delay
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is violating the law by failing to send veterans requested medical records needed to obtain benefits, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court today. Some have been waiting as long as 25 months.
Seven veterans who served in the Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines are suing the VA, claiming that the agency has ignored written requests for their own records. Without the documents, the veterans cannot apply for military disability benefits and cannot seek a change in disability rating.
The veterans – from Florida, Kentucky, Colorado, Virginia and Wyoming – are represented by Public Citizen and the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP). The groups are asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to declare that the VA has unreasonably delayed responding to the veterans’ requests for their records and order the VA to produce the records within 20 days.
“Disability benefits are critical for veterans suffering from injuries sustained in service to their country,” said Rachel Clattenburg, the Public Citizen attorney handling the case. “Forcing a combat-wounded veteran to wait hundreds of days for records to apply for disability compensation is unacceptable. This lawsuit is not just about records; it is about ensuring that our country keeps its promise to its service men and women, and their families.”
Added Bart Stichman, co-founder and co-executive director of NVLSP, “Veterans who have been injured and disabled in combat should not be forced to wait months or years to receive their records from the VA so they can apply for disability benefits.”
Documents in veterans’ files include records of when and how they left military service, letters from the VA regarding decisions to deny or grant benefits, explanations of the veterans’ disability ratings (which determines the amount of benefits), service medical records and personnel files.
When a veteran asks for a copy of his or her claims file, the Privacy Act and its implementing regulations require the VA to make a copy of the file for the veteran or inform the veteran of the denial and the reason for the denial.
Five of the veterans in the lawsuit seek their records to enable them to apply to the Combat-Related Special Compensation program, which provides tax-free monthly payments to military retirees with combat-related disabilities. Those five have waited between 308 and 803 days.
Two of the veterans suing need their records to apply to the Physical Disability Board of Review (PDBR) for a review of their disability ratings. They have been waiting 621 and 686 days respectively. The review board was created after congressional hearings found that more than 77,000 injured veterans who were forced by injuries or medical reasons to leave the military between 2001 and 2009 may have been lowballed on disability ratings by the military and, therefore, denied benefits to which they were entitled. Approximately 25 percent of veterans applying to the PDBR are successful at getting a higher disability rating and do win retirement benefits.
“This delay is preventing me from applying for benefits that would help me to live a better life,” said Juan Rodriguez, one of the veterans who needs his claims file to apply to the Physical Disability Board of Review. “It is unfair for the Department of Veterans Affairs to delay responding to the requests for so long.”
Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1971, Public Citizen serves as the people’s voice in the nation’s capital, representing the public interest. Among our areas of interest is government accountability and government transparency. Through our Litigation Group, Public Citizen often represents individuals seeking access to records to which they are entitled under the Freedom of Information Act or Privacy Act. For more information, visit www.citizen.org.
The National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) is an independent, nonprofit veterans service organization that has served active duty military personnel and veterans since 1980. NVSLP offers training for attorneys and other advocates, connects veterans and active duty personnel with pro bono legal help when seeking disability benefits, publishes the nation’s definitive guide on veteran benefits, and represents and litigates for veterans and their families before the VA, military discharge review agencies and federal courts. For more information go to www.nvlsp.org.