A Vietnam veteran long denied his own post-military benefits is suing the Veterans Affairs Department to speed up the disability compensation appeals process, a move that could potentially affect thousands of cases stuck in administrative limbo.
On Monday, Marine Corps veteran Conley Monk Jr. filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims asking for the department to "promptly" rule on appeals pending for more than one year when the case involves a veteran facing medical or financial hardship.
Even as VA officials have made substantial progress in recent years on drawing down the backlog of first-time disability benefits cases, the growing backlog of appeals cases has alarmed veterans' advocates. About 290,000 veterans have appeals pending in the system.
Many of those cases have lingered for multiple years, leaving some veterans waiting with none or only a fraction of the benefits they are owed. VA officials have said administrative moves alone to certify and transfer appeals entail an average wait of nearly two years.
The lawsuit — separate from one filed by Monk last year seeking a review of post-traumatic stress disorder cases for veterans who received other-than-honorable discharges — calls delays in the appeals system "pervasive and unlawful" and worthy of court intervention.
William Hudson, a law intern at the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic and part of Monk's legal team, said the courts have intervened to force quick decisions in individual veterans' cases in the past, but the suit could create the first class action-type case in the history of the appeals court.
Court officials would have to set the guidelines of veterans eligible for the expedited reviews, clearly defining which individuals face medical or legal hardship.
Monk's own case has been pending for almost two years, during which he claims he suffered costly new medical problems from a botched VA surgery and lost his home to a fire.
In a statement, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, offered his support for Monk's legal effort.
"I strongly support action to reform this broken appeals system because justice delayed for these veterans is justice denied, unconscionably and unacceptably," Blumenthal said. "I hear from hundreds of veterans whose benefit appeals have languished for months, even years. The VA needs to improve and enhance its processing of appeals."
VA officials have not yet responded to the lawsuit.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.