Seven disabled veterans who say they have waited hundreds of days to see their medical files are suing the Veterans Affairs Department over the delay, saying it already has potentially cost them thousands of dollars in payouts.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is the latest in a series of legal actions against VA leaders over how disability claims are handled.
Earlier this month, a Marine Corps veteran sued VA to force "prompt" resolution of a disability appeals claim that has been pending for more than a year. In March, a coalition of veterans groups led by the American Legion sued to block new paperwork changes in how benefits claims are filed, arguing the move could cheat thousands of veterans out of payouts they deserve.
Monday's lawsuit deals with problems emerging even before those steps take place. The seven veterans, represented by Public Citizen and the National Veterans Legal Services Program, charge that VA has "unreasonably delayed" delivery of their medical records, which are needed to apply for military disability benefits or request a disability rating change.
All seven of the men have had medical records requests pending for at least 300 days, despite VA rules that state the department must provide an explanation if the records can't be supplied within 20 days.
One plaintiff — Army veteran George Ball, who returned from tours in Iraq with post-concussion syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder — has been waiting for his files for more than 800 days, without explanation, the lawsuit states.
"Forcing a combat-wounded veteran to wait hundreds of days for records to apply for disability compensation is unacceptable," Rachel Clattenburg, a Public Citizen attorney handling the case, said in a statement.
"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."
Lawyers associated with the lawsuit said they're requesting immediate release of records for the seven veterans involved, and "appropriate relief" for other veterans facing similar problems.
VA officials have reduced the first-time disability claim backlog from around 612,000 cases two years ago to about 177,000 cases now, but lawmakers and outside advocates have expressed concerns that those improvements may not be fixing underlying difficulties with the process.
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.