News

Court allows class-action lawsuit against VA

For the first time, a federal court will allow a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs which legal experts say will open the door for a range of similar cases.

According to an article published by the MilitaryTimes.com, “The decision, which could affect thousands of veterans, came late last week in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Last August, the same court for the first time ruled that class-action lawsuits would be allowed against VA in “appropriate cases,” but no such claims met court standards until now. This case — Godsey v. Wilkie — sought relief for veterans facing lengthy waits for the department to certify their disability benefits appeals claims. The case was originally filed in 2017 on behalf of four veterans facing lengthy delays, but lawyers argued it should be broadened to include an entire class of individuals waiting for their benefits.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs stated last year that more than 2,500 veterans had been waiting for certification for over two years. The court amended the class to include only veterans facing an excess wait time of more than 1.5 years for the advancement of their appeals.

Bart Stichman, the executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program said, “(The court’s) order certifying a class action for the first time in its 30-year history is a landmark moment, and will help ensure that our veterans and their families have more access to the justice they deserve…It has been a long time coming.”

Advocates have asked the courts to overturn a long-term ban on class-action lawsuits against the VA for years. This type of lawsuit allows plaintiffs to show illegal or harmful activity against a larger group.

This recent ruling requires the VA to perform a precertification review of all cases for all class members within 120 days for their initial filing. In addition, it also requires that the department provides a status update on that work back to the court before the end of the summer.

For more information on this important news affecting veterans, click HERE.

‘Blue water’ veterans bill heads for final signature

This week the Senate unanimously passed legislation that grants disability benefits to “blue water” Vietnam veterans. The bill has now been sent to the White House to officially become law.

According to an article published by MilitaryTimes.com, “The legislation, passed unanimously by the House last month, has been a focus of advocates fighting to ensure nearly 90,000 veterans who served on ships in the seas around Vietnam are granted the same Veterans Affairs benefits status as troops who served on the ground or on ships stationed close to shore. Under current regulations, those troops were assumed to have been exposed to toxic defoliants like Agent Orange, and were given special fast-track status when illnesses related to that chemical contamination surfaced later in life.”

However, VA officials ruled in 2002 that the same presumptive status did not apply to the “blue water” veterans. As a result, veterans were asked to prove their ailments were a result of exposure to toxic chemicals but found this difficult due to a lack of chemical monitoring on the ships and the decades that have passed since the exposure. Last week, it was announced by officials from the Department of Justice that they would not appeal the decision, effectively ending the fight.

The bill, which is now on its way to the White House,  will also expand certain presumptive benefits to those who served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone as well as children of exposed Thailand veterans born with spina bifida.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. was quoted as saying “It is our responsibility to make sure our veterans are provided the benefits they have earned…I look forward to President Trump signing this legislation into law, and I will work with the VA to ensure Blue Water Navy veterans begin receiving these benefits.”

To learn about this important news affecting “blue water” Vietnam veterans, click HERE.

Bill introduced to help female veterans access legal services

This week lawmakers introduced a bill addressing the need for veterans to access legal services, with a specific focus on female veterans. Military veterans have told the Department of Veterans Affairs that one of the top challenges they face is accessing legal services.

According to an article published by Stripes.com, “The Improving Legal Services for Female Veterans Act would require the VA to partner with at least one outside organization to provide legal services, such as preventing eviction or foreclosure and help with child support issues. Those were among the most common unmet needs in a 2017 Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Group for Veterans (CHALENG for Veterans) survey.”

The article continued by saying that an excess of more than 345,000 women have deployed since Sept. 11, 2001. As the number of women in the military has increased, so has the number of female veterans seeking care and legal support services from the VA.

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild is amongst one of the female House lawmakers that introduced the bill, saying “There is no question that the government has a duty and responsibility to take care of our veterans when they return home from sacrificing for our country — but women veterans face unique challenges that the Department of Veterans Affairs isn’t currently equipped to help them with,”.

Amongst the bill’s female co-sponsors, and part of the Servicewomen and Women Veterans Congressional Caucus, are Pennsylvania Reps. Madeleine Dean, of the Montgomery County-based 4th District; Mary Gay Scanlon, who represents the Delaware County-based 5th District; and Chrissy Houlahan, of the Chester County-based 6th District.

To learn more about this important news affecting female veterans, click HERE.

Immigration fails to give veterans special consideration

A report released last week showed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not take a person’s military service into consideration before deporting them. In addition to this, ICE does not track how many veterans are deported but does require that their agents look at employment history, health, community service, deployments to war zones, military decorations, and years in service before deporting them.

According to an article published by Stripes.com, “During a study of deportations from 2013 through 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that ICE did not follow these policies. Homeland Security agents told the GAO that they were unaware of the policies and don’t distinguish between veterans and nonveterans.”

As a result of failing to identify veterans, the agency effectively does not know the exact amount of veterans placed in removal proceedings or the number of veterans that have already been removed.

The Immigration and Nationality Act enables immigrant servicemembers to apply for citizenship. However, in a 2016 report released by the American Civil Liberties Union, many servicemembers did not realize that their citizenship was not automatic. Under the law, honorably discharged veterans who are not citizens of the United States may be deported if they are convicted of crimes.

According to the limited amount of data supplied by ICE, approximately 250 veterans were placed in deportation proceedings spanning 2013 through 2018, and a total of 92 had been removed from the country. The most common home countries among the 250 veterans placed in deportation were Mexico, Jamaica, El Salvador, Trinidad, Germany, and Guatemala.

To learn more about this important news affecting all immigrant veterans, click here.

Veterans owed refunds for incorrect fees

This week, a report was released by the Department of Veterans Affairs that states that disabled veterans have mistakenly been charged fees when taking out home loans. Now, the federal government owes millions of dollars in refunds to those veterans.

According to an article published by abc News, “The Department of Veterans Affairs issued more than $280 million in excessive fess between 2012 and 2017, and took no action despite knowing that veterans were owed refunds, the VA Inspector General report found.” The article continued by saying that “In many cases, third-party lenders rely on the VA to certify that a veteran is exempt from certain fees when applying for a home loan. But its exemption certificates were “outdated, incorrect, or missing exemption status resulting in veterans being incorrectly charged a funding fee,” according to the report. The Under Secretary for Benefits responded to the report by saying the problem would be corrected by the end of July.”

Investigators discovered that although most cases involved veterans becoming exempt from the fees only after they were issued, the VA did not implement its own policy to identify and refund the charges.

In the report, it states that “Requiring a veteran to submit a claim for a refund improperly places the burden and responsibility solely upon the veteran,”. On average, the fees totaled $4,000 with some being considerably higher. One was noted as being nearly $20k.

According to the report, the majority of the 72,900 veterans who are entitled to refunds have yet to be paid by the VA. Originally, the issue was first identified in 2014. An in-depth analysis was conducted and it was estimated that 48,000 veterans were owed as much as $151 million in overpaid fees.

Current and previous representatives of the loan office said that no corrective action was taken at the time because they were “focused on other competing priorities”.

To learn more about this important new, click HERE.

Officials drop appeal awarding benefits to ‘blue water’ Navy veterans

In a filing with the Supreme Court Tuesday, the Department of Justice dropped its appeal of a federal court decision awarding disability benefits to tens of thousands of veterans who claim their illnesses are related to the exposure of toxic chemicals while serving.

According to an article published by MilitaryTimes.com, the “Congressional Budget Office officials had estimated that awarding the benefits to the blue water veterans could total about $1.1 billion over 10 years, but VA officials in the past have estimated the total could rise to more than $5.5 billion. Justice lawyers had twice asked for deadline extensions to file an appeal, even as VA officials publicly said they believed the lower court decision should stand. Congressional leaders and outside advocates had also argued against an appeal.”

The bigger issue at hand is a previous VA decision to treat sailors’ disability benefit claims differently from other troops who served in Vietnam. Currently, ‘blue water’ veterans can receive medical care for their illnesses through VA however, they must first prove that their illnesses are directly connected to toxic exposure while on duty.

On the other hand, Vietnam veterans are automatically presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals known to cause serious illnesses and ailments.

So while a veteran who served on the shoreline could receive disability payouts after contracting Parkinson’s Disease or prostate cancer, another vet who served on a ship a few miles away would have to provide evidence of direct contact with hazardous chemicals. Advocates have long argued that it is almost impossible to do this given how much time has passed.

John Wells, a retired Navy commander and the executive director of Military-Veterans Advocacy, said the Department of Justice decision means their fight is effectively over.

To learn more about this good news for ‘blue water” navy veterans, click HERE.

Important Health Care Info Coming to Your Mailbox

All veterans are encouraged to check their mailbox for recent news from the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding major changes and updates being made to health care access.

According to an article published by Military.com, “The letter, signed by Dr. Richard Stone, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, is dated May 7 and briefly lays out the changes, including new access benchmarks and a new urgent care benefit.”

“We are excited about these changes that will strengthen VA care and care obtained through our community partners,” the letter states. “The changes empower you to find the balance in the system that is right for you.”

The flier – also known as the Mission Act – outlines new processes and procedures for veterans ranging from health care eligibility, to community care eligibility, urgent and walk-in care, co-pays, care standards, and complaints and appeals.

To learn more about the important updates to veterans health care access outlined in the Mission Act, click here.

‘Blue Water’ Navy veterans closer to receiving benefits

This year, lawmakers are closer than ever to passing legislation which would give tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans medical benefits – decades after they were exposed to the chemical Agent Orange.

According to an article published by WBFO 88.7, “In 1991, Congress passed legislation creating medical benefits for Vietnam veterans exposed to the herbicide. An estimated 90,000 veterans, however, have been denied coverage. These are the ‘Blue Water’ Navy veterans, who served on ships off the Vietnamese coast but may have also been exposed to the chemical.”

However, a recent court ruling in January ordered that the Department of Veterans Affairs extend the same benefits to ‘Blue Water’ Navy veterans. The VA showed some resistance saying that identifying eligible Blue Water Navy veterans would be a lengthy and complex process.

The article continued by saying that “Passage in the Senate is far from a sure thing. A previous attempt died in the Senate last December when some lawmakers raised concerns about the potential cost and the strain this would put on the VA.”

To read more about this new legislation and how it affects ‘Blue Water’ Navy veterans, click HERE.

Lawmakers pass ‘Blue Water’ Navy benefits bill once again

Recently lawmakers unanimously approved a bill that would extend benefits to Vietnam War sailors who have fought for years to prove they were exposed to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange. The House voted 410-0 to advance the bill to the Senate, following a vote last year of 382-0.

According to an article published by Stars and Stripes, “The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 aims to grant benefits to “Blue Water” Navy veterans who served aboard aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships but had been deemed ineligible for the same disability benefits as others who served on the ground and inland waterways. Agent Orange, a dioxin-laden herbicide, has been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease, as well as other conditions. The House approved a similar bill last June in the previous congressional session, but the effort stalled and ultimately failed in the Senate.”

Similar to last year, this new bill would increase fees for nondisabled veterans who apply through the VA home loan program in order to help offset costs. A number of national veterans organizations submitted a letter supporting the bill, stating it was “time to correct the injustice.” However, Military-Veterans Advocacy argued that the bill would inadvertently limit the number of veterans who would be eligible for benefits if the court ruling were to stand.

To learn more about this bill and how it affects you, click HERE.

Benefits for ‘blue water’ Vietnam veterans in motion

Lawmakers have once again passed a bill that would ease disability benefit rules for veterans who served on ships off the coasts of Vietnam and suffered serious illnesses.

According to an article published by MilitaryTimes.com, “The legislation — the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act — passed 410-0 with strong messages of support from both Democratic and Republican leadership. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said the move is needed to correct what he called years of mistakes in denying those veterans disability benefits for their injuries. In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that VA officials have improperly interpreted the law in denying those claims, essentially awarding the benefits to the entire class of veterans.”

The bill has a lot of support from of a variety of different veterans groups and advocates, including Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. However, other veteran advocacy groups are opposing the measure, saying the geographical parameters laid out in the bill are more restrictive than what the court order earlier this year included.

In addition, “lawmakers have also argued that Congress needs to act to find a way to pay for the additional costs of extending disability benefits to the “blue water” veterans. Congressional Budget Office officials had estimated the new awards could total about $1.1 billion over 10 years, but VA officials said the figure could rise to more than $5 billion.”

To learn more about the ‘Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act’, click here.