Veterans benefits

Legal Aid Can Reduce Veterans’ Benefits Backlog – Hartford Courant

In recent years, more than half a million veterans struggling with poverty and service-related disabilities have been forced to wait months – sometimes more than a year – to receive benefits. veterans who can make the difference between sleeping rough and the dignity of having a place to call home.

Connecticut Veterans Legal Center’s experiences with this issue demonstrate the potential for civil legal aid organizations to make a meaningful difference for veterans stuck in the benefit backlog.

Veterans do not automatically receive benefits when they leave the military. To receive their hard-earned benefits, veterans must navigate a maze of forms and provide detailed medical and financial records to the US Department of Veterans Affairs. The burden of this application process is exacerbated by long waits for a response. Civil legal aid lawyers help ease the burden of claims, reduce wait times and improve benefit outcomes.

As of May 16, the average time from when a veteran applied for benefits to when the VA determined their eligibility was 207 days. Currently, the VA has an impressive 577,852 pending claims, of which approximately 50% have been pending for at least 125 days and are officially considered pending. As the VA struggles to consider this flurry of applications, veterans who need this crucial support are left in limbo.

Two of the most essential benefits provided by the VA are disability awards and pensions. For many veterans, these benefits are all that separates them from homelessness. The Disability Award provides up to $34,298 per year for disabilities caused or aggravated by military service. The pension program is a means-tested benefit designed to prevent veterans from falling into poverty. It provides up to $12,652 per year. Both programs can provide additional support if the veteran is married or has dependents.

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Legal assistance is an invaluable asset for veterans. A 2005 VA report found that the average disability award for veterans who filed with the assistance of an attorney or Veterans Services agent was 144% higher than those filed. without assistance. Legal assistance can also improve the accuracy and completeness of a claim, helping to ensure that benefits are granted on the first claim.

Significant research may be required to complete an application and gather supporting documents. The lawyers’ research and writing skills are suited to quickly and accurately assemble these application materials. More generally, improving the quality of claims makes it easier for the VA to process all claims and could reduce the backlog.

Civilian legal aid programs intervene to help veterans receive the vital benefits they deserve. A recent Connecticut Veterans Legal Center case highlights the substantial difference legal aid can make. When a veteran with serious mental health issues was repeatedly denied disability benefits, she turned to the center for help. The VA had denied her claims since the mid-1990s. Like many veterans, she didn’t understand why the claim was denied or how to appeal, so she repeatedly filed the same claim. This common cycle contributes to the backlog.

In this case, the veteran’s illness manifested decades ago while serving in Europe. No one ever asked for her medical records at the base where she served. The lawyer obtained the veteran’s records from Europe, which showed she had reported symptoms decades ago, but her military doctors had not believed her. This resulted in a retroactive disability award dating back to his initial claim in the mid-1990s, including arrears totaling nearly $250,000.

The center’s experience shows that legal assistance integrated into VA care helps veterans overcome barriers to stable housing and income, including VA disability compensation. Much more needs to be done to ensure that all veterans have access to necessary legal services and to eliminate the backlog. It’s impressive that the VA hosts 46 independent legal service providers at 43 VA facilities — however, 43 represent less than 3% of the VA’s more than 1,700 service facilities nationwide. We need to educate attorneys on their ability to help veterans stuck in the benefits system and work to bring more civil legal aid programs to VA facilities.

Margaret Middleton is executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center based in West Haven and a visiting clinical lecturer at Yale Law School. Timothy D. Bleasdale is a 2014 graduate of the University of Connecticut Law School and a longtime volunteer at the center.