WASHINGTON – A special federal court that hears veterans’ disability appeals is facing its highest caseload ever as the government increasingly turns down benefits for war veterans, its chief judge said Tuesday.
Judge William 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 doesn’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.
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 saw 2,542 new appeals filed in six months, the highest ever, compared with 3,729 for all of the previous fiscal year.
About two-thirds of the VA’s initial decisions are typically found to be in error by the appeals 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, said Brian Lawrence, a legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans group.