U.S. Senator Mark Pryor this week introduced legislation to expedite the legal process for veterans who are often forced to wait years for a court to rule on whether they will receive disability payments and free health care.
Pryor said the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, commonly known as the "veterans court," was created two decades ago to weigh disability claims rejected by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Instead of overturning the VA's decision and ordering payment of benefits, the court usually sends the appeal back to the VA to re-evaluate. A 2007 Harvard Study found the average time for the VA to process an initial claim is 177 days, which can be followed by an average of 657 days to process an appeal.
"Veterans are struggling in a system that bounces their well-being back and forth between the court and the VA. In the end, many veterans abandon their appeal or die before a decision is made. We can and should make our legal system work better for them," Pryor said.
Pryor said the Veterans' Relief Act encourages an early resolution by requiring the VA to more thoroughly reassess a case before it advances to the veterans' court. During the appeals process, nearly half of the cases brought to veterans' court are remanded or sent back to the VA to be re-evaluated.
"My bill encourages an early resolution so veterans can avoid months, even years, of red-tape," Pryor said. "A final decision allows our veterans to move forward, while also reducing the court's backlog."
Pryor noted there are hundreds of backlogged cases, even as the court decides on more than 600 cases per judge each year. The court's caseload is escalating as veterans from previous wars age and face service-related health problems. Without action, the backlog will increase as Iraq and Afghanistan veterans begin the appeals process. Of the 1.3 million combat veterans discharged since 2001, nearly half have filed for benefits