Supreme Court to hear another major veterans benefits case this fall

by Vern Evans

The Supreme Court this fall will review the legal claim of two veterans denied medical benefits for what they insist were service-connected traumas, a case that could potentially expand benefits for thousands of veterans.

Officials from the high court on Monday announced they will take up Bufkin v McDonough, which has been moving through the veterans and federal courts for the last four years. Justices will address the case in their next term, which starts this fall, and are expected to issue a ruling in early 2025.

The case centers on Air Force veteran Joshua Bufkin, who served from 2005 to 2006, and Army veteran Norman Thornton, who served from 1988 to 1991. Both men were repeatedly denied medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but say the decisions and appeals process have been improperly handled.

Both Bufkin and Thornton sought medical care for post-traumatic stress disorder related to their military service, but failed to convince VA administrators they qualified for the benefits.

Their attorneys have argued those moves violate federal “benefit of the doubt” rules mandated by Congress, which state that when evidence supporting or opposing a veteran’s claim is roughly balanced, the department should rule in favor of granting the benefits.

VA officials — and subsequent court officials — have said the cases were properly handled, both by staffers evaluating the claims and during the subsequent appeals process.

A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs by the Supreme Court could force major changes in how such benefits cases are appealed, and potentially open the door for more individuals initially refused benefits eligibility to have their cases reconsidered.

The Supreme Court announcement comes just two weeks after justices ruled in favor of expanding veterans benefits in another major case, Rudisill v McDonough.

In that decision, a majority of the court ruled that veterans should be able to access both their Montgomery GI Bill education benefits and Post-9/11 GI Bill college benefits, in contrast to current VA policy mandating individuals choose only one program.

VA officials have said they are still reviewing that decision and expect to issue new rules regarding education benefits eligibility in coming months.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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