Justices to consider disability payments

April 05, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to rule on the Clinton administration's attempt to save $1 billion over the next five years in payments to veterans whose health worsens because of treatment at a veterans hospital.

A federal appeals court ruled in September that veterans who become disabled after visits to a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital are entitled to payments even if the hospital and its staff were not at fault.

Rejecting an approach the government has followed for 68 years, the appeals court said that federal law does not restrict disability compensation to those who have been mistreated or who have an accident while in the hospital. Compensation is due for any disability that is "a result of hospitalization," the lower court declared. That is the decision the Supreme Court said it would review.

Some 830,000 veterans enter veterans hospitals every year for treatment, and an additional 22 million see veterans' doctors on an outpatient basis yearly, the government's appeal to the Supreme Court noted. As best as it can calculate, the government said, "no-fault" pay for those disabled after such visits would require an extra $1 billion in benefits through 1999.

The government took the issue to the highest court in the case of Fred P. Gardner of Waco, Texas. A Korean War veteran, he had surgery for a back problem at a veterans' hospital in 1986. Later, after his release, he suffered leg and ankle pains.

Claiming that he had become disabled with the leg problems and arguing that the disability could be traced to his surgery, Mr. Gardner applied for disability benefits. He was turned down because he could not prove that his treatment had been faulty.

But the Court of Veterans' Appeals ruled in his favor. The government then took the case on to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Federal Circuit and lost.

In an unrelated case, the Supreme Court said yesterday that it would decide when the federal government's Medicare program is obliged to pay off losses that a hospital suffers when it refinances its building debt.

On the new cases that it said yesterday it would review, the court will hold hearings next fall or winter and issue final decisions sometime next year.

Frequent flier program

In a case of major importance to air passengers and the airlines, the justices agreed to decide next term whether passengers may sue for damages in state court if an airline changes its "frequent flier" program to reduce the value of credits that passengers already had earned.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled late last year that such lawsuits may go forward in state court on the theory that the retroactive reduction of "frequent flier" credits violates a legal promise the airlines made to those passengers at the time they flew and built up credits.

Illinois has become a mecca for damage claims aimed at most major U.S. airlines. All major U.S. airlines offer frequent flier programs, allowing passengers to build up credits by flying now in return for free or reduced-cost flights in the future.

Ruling on trash fees

The court, in a 7-2 ruling, made it more difficult for states to try to conserve landfill space for their own residents' trash. Declaring that states can seldom, if ever, justify putting a higher charge on trash coming from other states for disposal than on trash generated by the state's own residents, the court struck down a $2.25-a-ton surcharge that Oregon had levied on solid, nonhazardous waste entering the state from other areas.

Justice Clarence Thomas' opinion for the majority noted that Oregon charges only 85 cents a ton for disposal of trash generated by its own residents. The added $1.40 a ton assessed against out-of-state trash is not justified by any claim that handling that trash actually costs more, Mr. Thomas wrote.

Cleanup plans

In another action involving waste disposal, the court voted to leave intact a lower court's ruling that limits the right of citizens to sue to challenge cleanup plans for toxic waste dumps when those cleanup plans themselves threaten harm to health or the environment.

The lower court's ruling blocked a lawsuit by residents living around Jacksonville, Ark. Their lawsuit contended that plans to burn up stored dioxin-containing hazardous wastes at the site of a former pesticide plant may release threatening amounts of dioxin into the atmosphere.

Bans at polling places

The court left states free to block political activity and the carrying of signs within 600 feet of polling places on Election Day. Without comment, the justices turned down a constitutional challenge to a Louisiana law that marks out a "campaign-free" zone of 600 feet from polling sites. That would put leaflet-distributors and candidate-promoters as far as two blocks from the polls' entrances.

Relocation negotiations

The court agreed to spell out, at its next term, how much right businesses have to relocate all or part of their operations without first negotiating with the labor union representing their workers. The case grows out of a dispute over attempts by a meat-packing plant in Dubuque, Iowa, to reduce its labor costs by moving part of its operations to neighboring Illinois.

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