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Judge Warns of Vets Disability Backlog

Associated Press | May 23, 2007

WASHINGTON - A special federal court that hears veterans' disability appeals is facing its highest case load ever as the government increasingly turns down benefits for war veterans, its chief judge said Tuesday.

Judge William P. Greene Jr., who presides over the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, warned of a strained court that has had to recall five retired judges in recent months to assist with growing backlogs of veterans unhappy with the level of disability benefits assigned to them by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The seven-judge court is now averaging 300 appeals per month, which don't include veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan because many of the cases haven't reached the appeals level yet. If the court is to keep up, it will need more staff and building space, Greene told a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee.

"Our present space is or will be inadequate for the type of case load we are now experiencing," he said. "Adequate space is crucial if we are to make efficient use of recalled judges and any future full-time active judges."

Greene's comments come as a slew of congressional panels are studying ways to improve veterans care, including reducing backlogs of veterans seeking disability benefits. In a study earlier this year, Harvard professor Linda Bilmes said it took up to 177 days for the VA to process an initial claim and then an average of 657 days to process an appeal, resulting in significant hardship to veterans.

In the first half of the current fiscal year, the veterans court was among the busiest of the federal appeals courts. It saw 2,542 new appeals filed in six months, the highest ever, compared to 3,729 for all of the previous fiscal year.

Those numbers continued a sharp increase in appeals filed beginning in fiscal year 2005 as denial of benefits by the VA's Board of Veterans Appeals jumped from 9,299 in 2004 to 13,033 in 2005. Last year, total denials reached 18,107, according to the court. Side note to VA shortcut for claim review!

On Tuesday, Greene said the court is making efforts to reduce delays by regularly recalling retired judges, and working to implement an electronic case filing system to reduce paperwork. It also is considering whether in some clear-cut cases it should make rulings without attaching an explanation.

But that won't likely be enough, Greene said. He predicted many more appeals in the coming months and years, citing the complexity of cases of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder who may be denied benefits if the symptoms aren't readily clear.

Brian Lawrence, a legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans group, criticized what he called the court's overly deferential review of VA decisions on veterans' claims, which he said added to delays.

Some two-thirds of the VA's initial decisions are typically found to be in error by the court, but rather than overturning the decision and ordering payment of benefits, the court usually sends the appeal back to the VA to take a second look, Lawrence said.

Only in limited cases, after a ruling is deemed final, can a veteran appeal a ruling of the veterans court to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit or the Supreme Court.

"Such a remand leaves unresolved the errors allegedly committed by the board, reopens the appeal to unnecessary development and further delay and further overburdens a system straining to meet growing backlogs," Lawrence told the House subcommittee.

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