Hamilton Co. sues Indiana VA over denied benefits claims, seeks oversight responsibility for VA

IL file photo

Hamilton County has filed a lawsuit against the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, alleging hundreds of veterans were denied medical benefits for five years due to mismanagement and asking a judge to find that the VA should be in charge of supervising county officers.

The central Indiana county, which has more than 13,300 veterans, alleges IDVA Director Dennis Wimer and his department breached its statutory duties in the handling of a series of problems with former Hamilton County veteran service officer Lynn Epperson from 2014 to 2019.

At the crux of the lawsuit is whether the state or county is in charge of overseeing the VSO in Hamilton County.

“Key to the understanding of the issue here, Indiana law mandates that the County VSO is to act under the supervision and the rules of the Indiana Department of Veteran Affairs. I.C. § 10- 17-1-2(a),” the complaint states. “Indiana law further provides that where, as here, the remuneration and expenses of the VSO are paid from County funds, the VSO shall serve under the supervision of the Director of the State Department of Veterans Affairs. I.C. § 10-17-1-9(c)(3).

“Indiana law also clearly states that ‘[a] rule contrary to Section (c), or (d) is void.’ I.C. § 10-17-1-9(e). … Unfortunately, the Department and the Director failed to supervise the former VSO and have refused to fully supervise and monitor the County’s current VSO.”

In 2014, the Hamilton County commissioners hired Epperson as VSO. Due to  ongoing performance issues, the county ended her appointment in December 2019.

After removing Epperson, the county claims it discovered that she had failed to timely submit claims seeking monthly disability benefits — which ranged from $140 to $4,200 per month — for many veterans. As a result, the benefits, including retroactive benefits, for hundreds of veterans were lost.

The complaint alleges Epperson failed to act on files that required urgent action “several times,” lied to employees about the status of claims and often waited months before following up on a request for medical records, among other issues.

“Concerned about Epperson’s lack of diligence in managing claims, the County decided to review all open files from August 2018 to July 2019 to determine if all tasks were completed,” the complaint states. “The County identified 508 open files. As of September 2019, it had reviewed 218 files. Of those, 180 claims had either not been filed correctly or not filed at all. This was a significant failure on Epperson’s part, which put hundreds of veterans at risk of losing their benefits.

“… Between July 2, 2020, and November 17, 2020, the County reviewed over 6,000 files in the office,” it continues. “The County found over 1,000 files that contained forms used by the USDVA and sent them to that agency. Of those files, it remains to be seen how many veterans were impacted by Epperson’s malfeasance”

Further, the complaint states the county has repeatedly asked the state for its assistance and cooperation to remedy Epperson’s mistakes and prevent future issues, but has achieved little success.

“The Director failed to supervise Epperson, failed to review or monitor the quality of her work for 5 years, and did not discipline or discharge her,” the complaint alleges. “This failure was a breach of the Director’s duty to supervise Epperson and the County estimates hundreds of veterans have lost thousands of dollars due to the acts and omissions of Epperson and the Department’s failure to carry out its statutory duties to adequately supervise Epperson.”

The county is requesting declaratory judgment from the Marion Superior Court finding that Wimer and the IDVA breached the duty to supervise the former VSO, and that Indiana law mandates the director is responsible for supervising and monitoring the performance of the county’s VSO.

In a statement issued to media last week, Wimer said that his department denies the claims and that “(t)he statue cited in the lawsuit has never been interpreted the way Hamilton County prefers.”

“Counties, not the state, have the responsibility for hiring, supervising, evaluating, giving pay raises, and, if needed, firing employees who work in their county veterans offices,” Wimer said. “Hamilton County discovered problems three years ago, and IDVA went above and beyond to help.”

Attorneys Blake J. Burgan, Nadine E. McSpadden and Kristine A. Gordon of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs on Oct. 26.

The case is Hamilton County, Indiana v. Dennis Wimer, in his official capacity as director of State of Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, 49D07-2210-PL-037195.

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