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Vets Sue VA Over Access to Medical Records

Plaintiffs say department has ignored their requests for documents necessary to apply for disability benefits.

Seven veterans from across the country have sued the Veterans Affairs Department claiming the agency has unlawfully ignored requests for documentation necessary to obtain disability benefits.

The vets -- who are from Florida, Kentucky, Colorado, Virginia and Wyoming – want to apply for additional programs that could result in more disability compensation, but are unable to do so because they’re still waiting for the VA to send them documents from their claims files. VA maintains a claims file that includes several important medical records and other documents for every vet who has applied to the department for disability benefits. According to an Aug. 19, 2013, document in a VA handbook, “requests for access to records will be acknowledged within 10 business days if the response cannot be provided within 20 business days, as required by the Privacy Act.”

The plaintiffs have been waiting hundreds of days, having submitted requests to VA on various dates in 2013 and 2014. Five vets want their records so they can apply for combat-related special compensation, a Defense Department program that provides tax-free monthly payments to military retirees with combat-related disabilities. Two of the plaintiffs need their files to apply to the Physical Disability Board of Review for an additional review of their disability ratings, which could result in more benefits. Congress created the board in 2008, administered by Defense, to ensure the fairness and accuracy of disability ratings for service members discharged between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2009, with combined military disability ratings of 20 percent or less. As of March 2014, nearly 25 percent of the cases the board reviewed resulted in disability benefits for applicants.

To apply for those programs, applicants must submit various documentation, including medical records, disability benefits ratings decisions, and any other evidence that supports the vet’s claim. A veteran’s claims file contains documents submitted by the vet, as well as any records the department has created or obtained on behalf of the veteran to determine benefits.

“Although the requests were made as long as 26 months ago, the VA has neither produced the requested documents nor denied the requests,” stated the complaint, filed in federal court on April 20. The veterans, who are represented by Public Citizen and the National Veterans Legal Services Program, are seeking “a declaration that the VA has unreasonably denied responding” to their request for access to their records, as well as “an order requiring the VA to produce the requested records within 20 days of the Court’s order.”

A VA spokeswoman said the department had not yet officially received a copy of the complaint, so could not comment on it. 

“Veterans who have been injured and disabled in combat should not be forced to wait months or years to receive their records from the VA so they can apply for disability benefits,” said Bart Stichman, co-founder and co-executive director of NVLSP, in a statement.

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