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Two veterans' groups have filed a suit in an effort to get a federal court to order interim benefits for veterans if a claim for disability compensation takes longer than 90 days to be processed.
Vietnam Veterans of America and Veterans of Modern Warfare want an interim payment equal to what is paid for a 30 percent disability rating — between $356 and $497 a month, depending on the number of dependents — if an initial claim takes more than 90 days or an appeal of a denied claim takes longer than 180 days.
The suit, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is an attempt to use the federal court system to tackle the Department of Veterans Affairs claims processing bureaucracy, said Robert Cattanach, one of the attorneys handling the case.
VA officials had no immediate comment. Spokesman Phil Budahn said VA officials learned about the suit only after it was filed, and are working on a response.
"Veterans need prompt action and they need it now," Cattanach said. "The Department of Veterans Affairs is failing miserably."
It is no coincidence that the suit was filed one day before Veterans Day. John Rowan, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said more than half a million veterans "will wake up on Veterans Day still awaiting their benefits" because VA takes, on average, 182 days to process an initial claim and 4½ years or more to an appeal.
"These unacceptable and excessive delays cause veterans and their families irreparable harm," he said. "Financial hardship can become extremely dire while waiting."
Donald Overton, Veterans of Modern Warfare's executive director, called it a "terrible irony" that today's military has sophisticated weapons of war but the VA claims system remains antiquated.
"All of us should be outraged," Overton said.
The lawsuit asks the court to require the VA to present a plan within 30 days for speedier claims processing. If the VA fails to come up with such a plan, the suit asks the court to order an "equitable remedy," which the veterans' groups believe would be interim payments equal to what someone would receive if they had a 30 percent disability rating. The interim payments would continue until the claim is resolved.
Cattanach said interim payments "are not a lot of money" but would be enough for "basic support."
The 90-day and 180-day standards sought by the lawsuit are the groups' estimates of what is reasonable. Federal law does not include any specific requirement about how long claims processing can take.
Providing interim benefits while awaiting claims decisions is an idea that has bounced around veterans' groups and Congress for several years as the backlog of pending claims has grown. There has been some reluctance to endorse the idea because of concern that the promise of quick payments might encourage veterans to file unsubstantiated claims and deliberately make them complicated so they would take longer than 90 days to complete.
Cattanach said faster claims processing is more important now than ever. "Disabled vets have a very difficult time finding jobs, especially in this economy," Cattanach said.
While veterans eventually received backdated payments if claims are decided in their favor, veterans suffer in the meantime.
"Providing back pay whenever the VA gets around to it" does not make up for the hard times, he said. "Under the law, excessive delays amount to the same thing as benefits denied."