VETERANS BENEFIT PROGRAMS IMPROVEMENT
In late May 2010, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki prepared a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate requesting that his draft legislation entitled “Veterans Benefit Programs Improvement Act of 2010” be considered and enacted. The purpose of the draft bill is to improve (1) VA’s compensation and pension programs, (2) the timeliness and efficiency of VA’s adjudication of claims and appeals, (3) VA’s loan guaranty system, (4) vocational rehabilitation and education benefits, and (5) Veterans Group Life Insurance participants. Details of the particulars with respect to the suggested changes and reasons for them can be viewed at: https://www.vawatchdog.org/
While it is clear that many of the proposed changes appear good for veterans, there are several items that have surfaced that may negatively impact the legal representation of veterans.
Under Title II, Section 206, which concerns decisions of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, the legal standard of what the Board must include in its decisions may change. VA is concerned that more than half of the claims appealed to the Veterans Court result in a remand back to the Board due to an inadequate statement of reasons or bases. The comments to the proposed change note, among others, that while some remands are necessary, many remands based on reasons or bases do not benefit the claimant. Therefore, changing the statutory language from reasons or bases to “a plausible statement of the reasons for the Board’s ultimate findings of fact and conclusions of law” would reduce the number of remands.
Under Title II, Section 207, which addresses the definition of prevailing party status for purposes of entitlement to Equal Access to Justice Act, i.e., reimbursement of attorney fees, the proposed language is alarming. If the language is adopted, attorneys who represent veterans before the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims would only be eligible for reimbursement of attorney fees if, after securing a remand or reversal at the appellate level, the veteran ultimately is awarded a monetary or other benefit at the administrative level. The language further allows the Court and the Secretary to prescribe rules that would allow the Court to retain control over all remands, and only upon a showing that the veteran was awarded benefits, could the attorney be entitled to reimbursement of fees.
If either of these proposed changes become law, it is likely to negatively impact the number of attorneys willing to represent veterans at the court level. If attorneys know that the chances of recovering attorney fees is limited and that it will be that much more difficult to secure remands, the Veterans Court will likely see many more unrepresented claimants.