Veterans groups fear unscrupulous lawyers will prey on ex-military personnel seeking medical claims from the Department of Veterans Affairs when a Civil War-era law is replaced later this year.
The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and other groups are challenging the new law that allows lawyers to collect fees for representing injured veterans earlier in their appeal, undermining the long-standing practice of pro bono representation.
"We're leery about the fact that now we'll see attorneys on TV advertising services to veterans that they can get elsewhere at no charge," DAV Executive Director David Gorman said. "We just think that a lot of [veterans] will unnecessarily go to these attorneys."
The new statute, which passed in December and is scheduled to take affect in June, permits veterans challenging a claim dispute with the VA to hire a lawyer as soon as they appeal.
Previously, veterans could hire lawyers or other legal agents only after the VA's Board of Veterans' Appeal reached a decision on their case, thus exhausting the administrative appeals process.
The new law doesn't affect a veteran's right to legal counsel at any time of the claim process on a pro bono basis, which veterans groups like the DAV help arrange for ex-service personnel.
"We think [the pro bono system] is the bedrock of the VA compensation system," Mr. Gorman said.
The original law dates to the 1860s and placed a limit of $10 that lawyers could charge veterans on claims cases. The $10 cap remained until the late 1980s, when lawyers were barred from collecting any fees until the final step in the appeals process.
But supporters of the new law, sponsored by Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, say the old policy has outlived its usefulness, and that removing barriers limiting veterans' ability to seek legal representation gives them more legal options.
"Senator Craig feels strongly that veterans are adults and should be able to hire an attorney if they wish," Craig spokesman Jeff Schrade said.
And not all veterans groups oppose the law. Vietnam Veterans of America says the new statute reverses more than a century of discrimination against veterans.
"It's outrageous to think that an enemy combatant or an illegal alien has the right to hire an attorney, but a disabled veteran doesn't," said Rick Weidman, the group's executive director for policy and government affairs.
The Disabled American Veterans only opposes the law because the group risks losing relevance if veterans hire a private attorney instead of using the group's own legal services, said Arthur N. Bernklau, executive director of Veterans for Constitutional Law Ltd., a veterans-advocacy group.
"The veterans of this country do not have a worse enemy than the DAV," Mr. Bernklau said.
DAV National Commander Bradley Barton has pleaded with Congress to repeal the law.
"Veterans and other beneficiaries should be able to file claims for benefits and receive fair decisions from the VA without the necessity to hire and pay a large portion of their benefits to attorneys," Mr. Barton said last week at a joint hearing of Senate and House veterans affairs committees.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars and AMVETS also oppose the new guidelines, which also will significantly slow down the number of benefits claims with the VA. There already is a backlog of about 400,000 claims, the DAV says.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, says Veterans shouldn't need a lawyer to get their benefits, and that he is hopeful a deal can be worked out to change the law.