With much of the nation's attention focused on veterans yesterday, Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), two congressmen and a variety of Vietnam-era veterans' groups tried to kindle interest in legislation that would give the federal courts the authority to review most Veterans Administration decisions.
Since 1940, federal law has made the VA the sole arbiter of decisions on granting education, housing, pension and disability benefits to the millions of veterans and dependents who apply for them each year. This fiscal year, those benefits will total an estimated $15.5 billion.
There is an internal VA mechanism to appeal initial agency decisions, but once the Board of Veterans Appeals rules against a claimant, that person has no recourse in the courts. In 1981, 72 percent of the 33,461 appeals to the BVA were denied.
That makes the VA unique among federal agencies -- such as the Agriculture and Health and Human Services Departments that distribute benefits to individuals. It's a status Hart and other legislators have been trying to change since 1975, without success.
Judicial review legislation has consistently died in the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, even during the Carter years, when VA Administrator Max Cleland supported it. Among the major national veterans' groups, only the American Legion opposes it.
One of the objections to judicial review cited most often, said one local American Legion representative, was the finality of a court decision. If a veteran can find new information supporting a claim for some benefit, he can renew his claim, even if the BVA previously has ruled against him.
"Our veterans are relegated to a legal no-man's land," complained Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "We put our veterans below the law by denying them basic constitutional rights." Rep. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) added that he believed the VA's renewed opposition to the move was based on concern about the potential increased administrative costs, concerns he said were unjustified because new costs would probably be offset by streamlining the existing appeals process. "They also don't want any infringement . . . on their jurisdiction," Daschle said.
In 1981, VA sent a memo to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, estimating that the number of claims denied by the BVA would drop from to 60 percent if judicial review were instituted. The agency also estimated that administrative costs would increase by $9.4 million if the legislation were passed with provisions making it retroactive to 1977.
The VA can be -- and has been -- taken to court on other issues, such as its guidelines for how its hospitals should handle the cases of Vietnam veterans who may have been exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange. But while the guidelines could be challenged in court under current law, the BVA's denial of medical benefits to an individual claiming Agent Orange-related health problems could not.