SAN FRANCISCO — Military veterans are locked in combat with each other on the battlefields of the courts and Congress over how to best care for their comrades hobbled by war.
The issue is whether lawyers can do better than organizations such as the Disabled American Veterans when it comes to helping disabled vets and their survivors wrest pensions and disability pay from the Veterans Administration's $14.5-billion-a-year compensation program. About 50 veterans' organizations now handle the cases, usually with non-lawyers employed as claims representatives.
The dispute has surfaced in the trial here of a lawsuit brought by veterans of post-World War II atomic bomb testing, who are seeking to invalidate a 123-year-old law that effectively bars lawyers from representing veterans before the VA for a fee.
Most large veterans' groups, including the Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion, have opposed recent efforts to make such a change, and argue that attorneys are less interested in better representation for veterans than in a lucrative new source of revenue.
But a smaller force of attorneys, and some veterans' groups, argue that the claims representatives employed by veterans' organizations are too often not competent to handle increasingly complex claims involving events such as nuclear test fallout and cancers allegedly cause by the Vietnam defoliant Agent Orange.
"They are well intentioned people and they're doing their best, but I'm afraid their best just isn't good enough," said Michael Ram, one of a bevy of lawyers suing the VA here on behalf of the 6,000-member National Assn. of Radiation Survivors.
Michael Leaveck, spokesman for Vietnam Veterans of America, the one major veterans' group that wants the system open to lawyers, said representation by many veterans' organizations is "spotty at best." Claims officers frequently "just do not understand provisions of the law."
Critics say untold thousands of veterans are being shut out from what would be their only source of income because of shoddy work by veterans' groups and the VA itself. As it is, an estimated 2.8 million disabled, often destitute veterans and their survivors, collect pay of between $300 and $1,600 a month. Defenders of the system, including the VA, warn that any change would only make it more cumbersome, leaving needy vets the real losers.
In the system, unique in the federal government, vets have no right to sue when the VA denies them benefits. Applicants for Social Security disability pay, for example, can have their day in court if they lose benefits. Veterans also are barred from paying lawyers more than $10 to handle their case. The cap dates back to the Civil War, and was intended at the time to protect veterans from greedy lawyers who cheated them of $5-a-month pensions. To that end it worked, but it also has effectively kept all but a handful of lawyers out of the VA system.
Paid Claims Officers
As a result, most veterans seeking GI benefits for disabilities, ranging from asbestos exposure to old gunshot wounds and post-traumatic stress, turn to the Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other veterans' groups to obtain disability pay.
The service is free, although many organizations mention this service prominently in fund-raising efforts and the recruitment of new members. The groups pay their claims officers, called service representatives, anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 a year and officers commonly are responsible for more than 1,000 claims a year.
The suit before U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel names only the VA as defendant. But much of the focus of the trial, expected to last another two weeks, has been on veterans' groups and whether they are competent in their claims efforts. In their attempt to prove that lawyers are needed to handle veterans' claims, the plaintiffs have sought to demonstrate that veterans' groups are unable to do the job.
"We don't enjoy dumping on them," said Thomas C. Vinje, another lawyer involved in the case.
The plaintiffs argue that the $10 fee cap is unconstitutional. They contend that veterans who allegedly suffer from rare forms of cancer or other conditions linked to exposure to radiation during atomic bomb tests and the postwar occupation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima need lawyers to represent them in their complicated claims. They point out that the VA has granted only about 40 of the 7,000 claims for radiation-related illness.
Cover Complex Cases
The plaintiffs' attorneys hope a win--whoever loses will appeal--could be extended to cover other complex cases. So, veterans exposed to radiation have found allies among Vietnam-era veterans, who want lawyers for post-traumatic stress and Agent Orange claims.