Washington - A federal judge on Wednesday rejected a bid by veterans groups to force the Veterans Affairs Department to speed up handling of its disability claims, saying it was not the court's role to impose quicker deadlines.
Vietnam Veterans of America and Veterans of Modern Warfare, which represent roughly 60,000 military veterans, had filed the lawsuit asking the VA process initial disability claims within 90 days and resolve appeals within 180 days. If the VA failed to do so, the two groups were seeking interim payments of roughly $350 a month.
At a court hearing Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said he was sympathetic to the plight of disabled veterans, many of whom he acknowledged might face unemployment and homelessness in a tightening economy. But Walton said that setting a blanket rule of 90 days for processing claims was a role for Congress and the VA secretary to decide.
Currently, thousands of veterans endure six-month waits for disability benefits and appeals that take years, despite promises by current VA Secretary James Peake and his predecessor, Jim Nicholson, to reduce delays. More recently, Congress passed legislation that sets up a VA pilot program aimed at speeding the processing of disability claims.
"It has to be appreciated that courts play a limited role," Walton told a courtroom filled with about two dozen veterans and their family members. "I am being asked here in a sense to run the VA and set in place a timeline that Congress has not."
"As much as I as an individual would like to see claims expeditiously concluded, ...I just don't see how I could provide the relief," he added. "If I did, I would be reversed in a heartbeat."
Earlier in the hearing, Robert Cattanach, an attorney representing veterans, called the VA's delays "egregious and unacceptable." Noting that the backlogs have persisted for nearly a decade, Cattanach argued that the VA has no incentive or requirement to improve its practices without a clear deadline.
"Give some help to these veterans who so desperately need it," he pleaded.
But government attorney Ron Wiltsie countered that the VA is working to reduce delays and has made some improvement. In recent months, the VA has added dozens of claims processors and now says it has whittled delays from 178 days to about 163 days. The VA should be allowed to continue its work without micromanagement and blanket judgments from a federal judge who has not reviewed the individual cases, Wiltsie said.
The hearing comes as the VA is scrambling to upgrade government technology systems before new legislation providing for millions of dollars in new GI education benefits takes effect next August. On Saturday, the VA also said it was working to pay back millions of dollars in government benefits to surviving spouses of veterans who - due to computer glitches - were wrongfully denied disability checks during the month of their spouse's death.
President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to "fix the benefits bureaucracy" at the VA. Earlier this month, he named retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff, to be the next VA secretary.
Julie Mock, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Veterans of Modern Warfare, said she and other veterans are tired of broken promises and months of delays.
"It's time the VA is held accountable," she said. "We're hopeful that President-elect Obama will make drastic changes."