Two national veteran advocacy groups have sued the Department of Veterans Affairs over what they call "unconscionable delays" in the resolution of disability claims.
Vietnam Veterans of America and Veterans of Modern Warfare this week filed suit in federal court in Washington saying it takes an average of a year or longer for the VA to decide a veteran's initial claim.
If rejected, the suit said, a veteran can wait an average of nearly 4.5 years for a VA appeals board to hear the case. And 50 percent of those appeals are ultimately successful.
The suit asks the court to force the VA to decide claims in 90 days and appeals within six months and then pay interim benefits pending those decisions.
"Veterans are getting jerked around left and right by a system that is supposed to be helping them," Minneapolis lawyer Robert Cattanach, who is handling the litigation, said on Wednesday. "Veterans shouldn't suffer because the VA can't fix its claims process."
A VA spokesman in Washington declined to comment and refused to discuss even generally delays in disability claims.
The VA previously has noted that it decides initial claims in an average of six months. "We know their numbers are not honest," Cattanach said.
For example, if a veteran dies three months after filing for benefits, the VA counts the case as resolved. And the VA doesn't count the time a veteran waits before they are discharged.
Many veterans file claims months before leaving the service.
The lawsuit comes as the VA continues to investigate the improper shredding of claims documents in two-thirds of its 57 regional benefits office, including its busiest at Bay Pines in St. Petersburg.
Nationally, the VA found about 500 documents critical in deciding a veteran's claim improperly set aside for shredding — 13 of those in St. Petersburg.
Veterans groups have complained that this one-time survey points to the possibility that untold thousands of documents have been shredded for years, immeasurably delaying claims.
The suit compared the private health insurance market with the VA, which in 2007 received 838,141 claims for benefits from veterans. (About 9 in 10 are ultimately granted.)
The private market processes 30-billion claims annually, typically in less than three months, the suit said.
Bay Pines is the home benefits office for Florida's 1.7-million veterans and handled about 60,000 claims last year.
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or at (813) 269-5306