Veteran Groups Sue VA for Ending Informal Disability Claims Process

Five national veteran's organizations have filed suit against the Veterans Affairs Department over its move ending informal claims applications and requiring veterans to fill out standardized forms.

The plaintiffs are The American Legion, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, and the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Louis Celli, the Legion's national director of veterans' affairs and rehabilitation, told the suit was filed in U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on March 20. It was entered into the court docket on Thursday, according to a statement released Friday afternoon by the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

The VA officially ended the informal claims process on May 24.

In an interview with reporters the next day, the VA's director of compensation services, Thomas Murphy, dismissed veterans' groups' opposition to the new process.

"There are some veterans' organizations that actually support it," he told, "and others that said we see the need, we prefer you didn't, but we understand the process."

Disabled American Veterans National Service Director Jim Marszalek said there is no great support for the VA's action.

"I don't know one VSO that's in support of this change. I haven't heard of one yet," he said. DAV is preparing to file its own lawsuit against the VA "very, very soon.

"It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," he said.

The lawsuit filed by the Legion and others claims that the new process prevents the VA from considering claims that are supported by the evidence in the VA record but have not been specifically claimed by the veteran.

Also, it argues, the process severely limits the types of benefits that VA will adjudicate when presented with a disability benefits claim. For example, it states, if a veteran files a disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder but fails to mention that he or she lost both legs in combat, VA is no longer obligated to develop or adjudicate benefits related to the amputations, even if the service treatment record documents the amputations.

"This policy change stands to hurt all veterans, but especially those returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, who often have multiple injuries and disabilities," the NVCLSP  announcement states.

The legal action comes as the VA officially ended its longtime "informal claims" system, by which a veteran could start a claim merely by penning a letter or even a note on a napkin, as some VA leaders have said in the past.

The date of the simple letter or note became the official start date for any compensation payments if VA approved the claim.

In recent years, strapped and embarrassed by a claims backlog that has seen tens of thousands of veterans waiting months if not years for a decision, the VA has pushed to get entirely away from a paper system, to be entirely digital.

The standardized forms can be converted to digital documents and promises to speed up the process, VA officials have said.

As with the now ended informal claim system, the date a veteran files the standard form becomes the claim start date.

The veteran can also nail down a start date by calling a toll-free number and registering his or her "intent" to file. While the call reserves the claim start date, action on the claim will not actually begin until the standard claim form is filled out and filed.

A veteran who does try to file an informal claim the old fashioned way – by letter – will get back a letter of rejection and instructions on how to properly file. But the VA response will not include the actual form.

Veterans organizations have said that ending the informal claims process is a breach of faith and statute with veterans. Older veterans may have trouble reading and filling out the forms, or accessing and using a computer to file electronically, they say.

Though not listed as a plaintiff in the suit filed March 20, the Veterans of Foreign Wars has also been sharply critical of the new process.

"We argued with VA behind closed doors, in public, and testified before Congress in opposition to doing away with informal claims and mandating the use of standardized forms," said Jerry Manar, deputy director for the VFW's National Veterans Service. Though the VA did create a system to reserve an informal claim date, it remains "an incomplete remedy," he said.

Murphy suggested that the official view of some veterans groups does not reflect that of their own service officers working at regional VA offices helping veterans.

"You're hearing the official positions from the [VSO] officials," he said, "but if you take the time to dig down a little bit deeper level you'll find, for example, some people sitting in our regional offices talking to veterans will tell you this: 'the process is clean, it's crisp, there's no more ambiguity here. I kind of like it.'"

Murphy attributed VSO leadership opposition to a reluctance to change.

"The change management – we're living through that right now," he said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at