The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs was hit with a lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of seven veterans who allege they have waited more than two years for military medical records they need to file for disability benefits.
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The veterans served in the Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines, and are from Florida, Kentucky, Colorado, Virginia and Wyoming. The soldiers allege the VA flat out ignored their repeated requests for their own military medical records, in violation of the law.
“Although the requests were made as long as 26 months ago, the VA has neither produced the requested documents nor denied the requests,” according to their lawsuit.
The watchdog group Public Citizen and the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) are assisting the soldiers with their suit. A spokesperson for the VA told FOXBusiness.com via email it “ has not been served with a copy of the complaint. As a result, we cannot comment.”
The soldiers’ lawsuit over the records delay comes as the VA continues to battle its backlog of disability claims. That backlog -- made up of first-time claims not acted on within 125 days -- was more than 611,000 in 2013, but is now below 200,000, according to the department.
Recently, the VA’s Office of the Inspector General released findings from an investigation at the VA’s Philadelphia regional office, which found misconduct and negligence in the benefits division there. Specifically, it found VA employees in that office neglected veterans’ benefits claims, manipulated quality-control measures and ignored tens of thousands of benefits inquiries for months on end. The watchdog began its investigation after whistleblowers contacted it last May within weeks after VA employees made public accusations of malfeasance at the Phoenix VA office.
In their lawsuit, the soldiers ask the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to declare that the VA has “unreasonably” delayed their requests, and that a 20-day deadline be imposed on the VA to deliver. “Disability benefits are critical for veterans suffering from injuries sustained in service to their country,” said Rachel Clattenburg, the Public Citizen attorney handling the case, in a statement. “Forcing a combat-wounded veteran to wait hundreds of days for records to apply for disability compensation is unacceptable. This lawsuit is not just about records; it is about ensuring that our country keeps its promise to its service men and women, and their families.”
Bart Stichman, co-founder and co-executive director of NVLSP, said in the statement: “Veterans who have been injured and disabled in combat should not be forced to wait months or years to receive their records from the VA so they can apply for disability benefits.”
Citing the Privacy Act of 1974, the lawsuit says the VA is required to make a copy of its file for the veteran or inform the veteran of its denial and the reason for the denial.
The lawsuit notes that documents in a vet’s claims file may include: a veteran’s separation-from service documents; the veteran’s complete record of service; letters from the VA notifying the veteran of its decision to deny or grant benefits; medical records from the veteran’s term(s) of service; and the veteran’s active duty personnel file, among other things.
The lawsuit also notes how important it is for veterans to get their VA records in order to get their cases heard by the Physical Disability Board of Review (PDBR). The review board was launched after congressional hearings revealed more than 77,000 veterans were forced to leave the service due to injuries or medical reasons between 2001 and 2009 “may have been lowballed on disability ratings by the military and, therefore, denied benefits to which they were entitled.”
An estimated one out of four veterans applying to the review board were successful at getting a higher disability rating in order to win retirement benefits.
The VA “delay is preventing me from applying for benefits that would help me to live a better life,” said Juan Rodriguez, one of the veterans who needs his claims file to apply to the Physical Disability Board of Review. “It is unfair for the Department of Veterans Affairs to delay responding to the requests for so long.”
*This story has been updated to include comments from the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs.