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The Department of Veterans Affairs, the American Bar Association and the Legal Services Corp. announced August 10 a new partnership and pilot program aimed at reducing the veterans’ claims backlog and making it easier for unrepresented veterans to receive assistance developing claims for disability pay.
Announced at the Convocation on the Legal Needs of Military Families and Veterans at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, the program provides free assistance from ABA and LSC attorneys to a targeted group of unrepresented veterans who request their help in filing disability claims.
“The backlog in veterans’ claims is unacceptable,” said VA general counsel William Gunn in making the announcement. “We are anxious to partner with these organizations and with lawyers all over the country.”
Gunn pointed out that three of the top 10 needs of homeless and near-homeless veterans — eviction, child support and outstanding fines and warrants — are legal needs.
“Is it possible for lawyers working together to help our veterans?” Gunn asked. “We are going to test the hypothesis that ‘Yes, we can.’”
The development of the claim is often the longest part of the process that determines whether a veteran is entitled to VA compensation, often taking more than 200 days. The pilot program will offer pro bono attorney assistance to veterans with claims pending at the St. Petersburg, Fla., and Chicago regional offices who do not currently have representation. Similar veterans with claims pending at other VA regional offices may also be considered for the program.
The claims selected for this pilot program, which are currently or will soon be part of the claims backlog (defined as claims more than 125 days old), will vary in terms of complexity and degree of completeness. VA will accredit the attorneys who choose to participate, the ABA and LSC will provide them with specialized training, and they will be added to the ABA’s Veterans’ Claims Assistance Network. The two initial pilot sites were selected based on proximity to ABA headquarters (Chicago) and the opportunity for the biggest impact on the backlog (St. Petersburg).
“It is clear that we have to have responsible and responsive programs for veterans that provide legal support, reduce veterans’ claims backlogs and remove legal barriers to benefits,” said Jack Young, immediate past chair of the ABA Coordinating Committee on Veterans’ Benefits and Services.
In coming months, VA will identify eligible veterans to participate in the pilot program and advise them of all their options for representation — Veterans Service Organizations, attorneys and claims agents and pro bono attorneys participating in the pilot program.
Under the partnership, the ABA and LSC will match interested veterans and attorneys on several factors, including geographic location, complexity of the claim and the veteran’s and attorney’s preferences on the scope of representation.
VA is continuing to implement several initiatives to meet Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki’s goal to eliminate the claims backlog, currently 600,000 in total, in 2015. As a result of these initiatives, VA’s total claims inventory has dropped to its lowest levels since March 2011.
There are 23 million veterans in the United States, and the VA receives 900,000 new claims per year, more than one-third of which are from veterans of the Vietnam era. Claims most ripe for engagement involve incomplete or deficient claims that lack key supporting documents.
The convocation, sponsored by the ABA Board of Governors, also featured presentations and discussion among ABA entities and other organizations that help veterans, offering updates on their current activities and ideas for collaboration.
“Few of us in this room could find a better group to help than veterans,” said Cheryl I. Niro, chair of the ABA Board of Governors’ Program, Evaluations and Planning Committee.