An attorney for veterans awaiting action on appealed disability claims says the Department of Veterans Affairs is violating the law by not processing and making decisions on the appeals during the shutdown.
Glenn Bergmann of Bergmann & Moore, LLC, says appeals claims are supposed to be fast-tracked, but since the federal government went into shutdown on Oct. 1 the VA has simply stopped processing them entirely. It has continued to process first-time claims, although at a slower rate than before the shutdown.
“Despite a 2003 law mandating that VA provide ‘expedited’ processing of appealed claims, VA is now completely ignoring veterans’ appeals during the shutdown,” Bergmann said. “In effect, VA is treating veterans with appeals as second-class citizens.”
The VA announced Oct. 1 that processing of appeals would be suspended and that, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, no decisions on appeals or motions would be issued by the Board of Veterans Appeals.
As of Oct. 5, the VA said the number of appealed claims was 258,077 -- a number unchanged since its Sept. 28 posting.
The number of appeals claims is less than half the overall number of initial disability claims, which was about 670,000 as of Oct. 5, according to VA figures. The initial claims backlog -- those more than 125 days old and not acted on -- numbered just over 399,000 as of Oct. 5.
The VA has repeatedly warned Congress that its claims backlog is already growing and will worsen unless the government reopens and the pace can be kicked up once more.
But officials have said little about the appeals claims.
Though the number of appeals claims is much smaller than that of first-time claims, decision wait times are much longer -- as long as four years on average. Some are still pending a decision after 10 years, Bergmann and partner John Moore told Congress in June.
For initial claims applicants, worst-case wait times have been as long as two years in some parts of the country, according to the VA.
Bergmann and Moore told lawmakers in written testimony in June that the Veterans Benefits Administration, responsible for processing claims, showed no indication that it was expediting appealed claims.
“The consequences for VBA’s delays processing appeals are significant,” they stated. “As many as 53 veterans die each day waiting on a VBA claim decision. Due to a lack of VBA transparency, no one knows how many veterans died, or how long they waited, for VBA to process an appealed claim.”