Caregivers of seriously wounded veterans who were previously denied benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs may get a new chance to appeal that decision under a court ruling issued this week.
The move has the potential to award tens of thousands of dollars to some families that have struggled to act as full-time caregivers to veterans, but payouts are still likely months or years away, depending on whether VA officials opt to appeal the ruling.
The case centers on Jeremy Beaudette, a Marine Corps veteran who left legally blind and and suffering from traumatic brain injury after multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was rated as 100 percent disabled by VA officials because of those wounds.
Previous attempts to force the department to respond to a large group of veterans complaints instead of individual cases failed to meet the court's standards.
But when his wife, Maya, applied for benefits through VA’s caregiver program — which awards up to $2,300 a month in stipends and additional support services to full-time caregivers of injured veterans — she was rejected. Multiple appeals to department officials were also denied.
Lawyers from Public Counsel’s Center for Veterans’ Advancement and Paul Hastings LLP argued the family should have had the opportunity to appeal that ruling outside that system to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, which handles other benefits disputes.
But VA officials have long maintained that step is unnecessary, because the program already has several levels of review. They argued that addition of a new appeal will further complicate system, resulting in more confusion and frustration.
This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims disagreed with that stance.
A panel of judges on the court ordered those cases be allowed to go before the BVA, and that department officials spend the next 45 days working with the outside attorneys to develop a full list of applicants from the last 10 years who may be owed another chance at appeal.
Since the caregiver program was launched in 2010, more than 400,000 applications have been submitted. Currently about 20,000 veterans are enrolled. It’s unclear how many of the remainder may have been rejected and exhausted their internal appeals, but now could benefit from the new court ruling.
In a statement, VA spokesman Terrence Hayes said the court’s decision “is a complex ruling with far-reaching implications. The department is diligently considering next steps.”
If VA officials opt not to appeal, families could start being informed of their new application review options in early summer. Attorneys said veterans affected by the change will be contacted by VA officials about their new appeal rights and procedures, and will not have to reach out to the legal teams on their own.
The planned expansion of the program has been delayed since last fall.
But if VA does appeal the ruling, it could stretch the case for several more years. Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they hope that doesn’t happen.
“This decision will allow veterans and caregivers to finally voice the inconsistencies and errors they have experienced with the caregiver program,” says Amanda Pertusati, supervising staff attorney at Public Counsel. “Veterans and caregivers will no longer feel helpless and hopeless, having to navigate within a framework that repeatedly insulates inaccuracies without proper due process.”
The case has been closely watched by outside advocates, who say the long-term effects of the ruling could mean more options for families who feel they were unfairly rejected from the program but also potentially slower appeals timelines.
“Our primary interest now and always is what is in the best interest of our nation’s military and veteran caregivers,” said Steve Schwab, CEO of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.
“We’ve long advocated for standardization, consistency, and clear communication across the VA around the [caregivers program]. The foundation is committed to working with the VA and our [veterans service organization] partners to better understand this decision and the implications it could have on the community we serve.”
If veterans win appeals cases before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, those decisions could mean not only future payouts for families but also retroactive pay. Individual financial settlements would depend on the applicants’ initial date of filing and changes in their disability status, among other factors.
Until last fall, the VA caregiver program was only open to veterans who were injured on duty after Sept. 11, 2001. Congress expanded the group to include veterans who served before May 1975 last October, and the program is set to expand again to veterans of all eras in the next few years.