December 12, 2015 Dialogue

Lawyers Giving Back: Helping Veterans to Receive their VA Disability Benefits

By Jason T. Vail

Of the benefits available to the men and women who have served in our nation's armed forces, financial compensation to those who have suffered physical or mental injuries during their time on active duty is one of the most important. As a nation grateful for their sacrifices, it is our responsibility to make whole those who have become disabled as a consequence of their military service. The unfortunate reality, however, is that our veterans are routinely forced to wait to receive the disability compensation to which they are entitled while the Veterans Administration (VA) takes months—or even years—to resolve their claims.

In recent years, changes in VA benefits law has allowed attorneys to represent veterans in navigating the often years-long process to appeal the denial of disability compensation claims. But while the inclusion of attorneys at the appellate level has been of benefit to many veterans, it has not helped the hundreds of thousands of veterans who are forced to wait for the VA to render an initial decision on their filed claims. As of this writing, there are more than 235,000 veterans in the VA's "claims backlog," meaning they have been waiting more than 125 days for the VA to make an initial determination on compensation for what are often seriously disabling conditions that require extensive medical attention and prevent them from working.

Recognizing the value provided by attorneys in the VA appellate process, the White House general counsel's office contacted the ABA to explore the idea of engaging lawyers in providing pro bono assistance to veterans in the initial claim-filing stage. The White House proposed that the ABA should find a way to add the efforts of lawyers to the already ongoing work of the VA and Veterans Service Organizations to improve the speed at which veterans' claims move through the VA system, thereby reducing the claims backlog and getting benefits paid to veterans more quickly. With the support of the White House, the ABA engaged in extensive discussions with the VA general counsel's staff to design a system that would efficiently move backlogged claims out of the VA's system into the hands of ready-and-willing volunteer attorneys, who would then develop the claims into a ready-to-rate status for submission to the VA. The resulting project became the ABA Veterans' Claims Assistance Network (VCAN), which the Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel launched in a pilot phase in August 2014.

The overarching objective of VCAN is straightforward: Provide a fully-supported, limited-scope volunteer opportunity for attorneys interested in helping unrepresented veterans complete their VA disability compensation claims, resulting in expedited rating and award of benefits to the veteran. In a typical case, the attorney will complete work on the claim and the veteran will receive a decision from the VA within 90 days of the veteran's first contact with VCAN.

For those attorneys interested in joining the VCAN initiative, the process is relatively simple and is open to all attorneys regardless of membership in the ABA. The first step is to register online at www.ABAVCAN.org, which involves providing contact information and some basic practice background information, including an indication of whether the attorney is currently accredited by the VA; accreditation is required by law of any attorney seeking to handle claims at any level on behalf of veterans. Attorneys who are not already accredited may, after registration, utilize a special VCAN email address for submitting their VA accreditation applications, both of which are available on the VCAN website. By using the special emailbox, VCAN attorneys can expect to receive confirmation of accreditation from the VA within a week or two instead of having to wait a month (or longer) under the standard process. Attorneys either already accredited or receiving accreditation through VCAN then may view one of two different recorded continuing legal education (CLE) programs on VA claims; both programs are available on the VCAN website, and more will be added in the future. These programs are approved for VA accreditation, and will meet either the initial CLE requirement for new applicants, or the ongoing CLE requirement for those already accredited. Finally, once the attorney has registered, is accredited, and completes the CLE, the attorney will submit a one-page form (also on the VCAN website) affirming all of the above steps have been taken and indicating at which point the attorney expects to be available to take on a case for a veteran, whether immediately or within the next thirty, sixty, or ninety days. Upon submission of that form, the attorney is deemed ready to accept a referral within the timeframe requested.

Once the attorney is in a position to accept a referral from VCAN, he or she can expect to be contacted by an ABA VCAN staff attorney with a case the attorney may choose to accept. The ABA VCAN staff attorney will have already conducted an intake with the veteran, collecting basic contact and background information (including income information for those attorneys who have income-based eligibility requirements), will have obtained all of the veteran's records currently held by the VA, will have assessed the status of the veteran's claim, and will have prepared a memorandum with an analysis of the claim and a recommended course of action to complete the claim for rating by the VA. Once the volunteer attorney agrees to take on the veteran's case, all of the documents described above will be electronically relayed to the attorney once the attorney executes the VCAN-provided VA pro bono representation agreement and power of attorney form with the veteran. Upon receipt of the veteran's intake file, VA records, and the VCAN attorney's memo, the volunteer attorney will have sixty days to complete development work on the veteran's claim. By the sixty-day deadline, the volunteer attorney will provide VCAN with all of the documents necessary to complete the veteran's claim, along with a legal memo that explains how the evidence substantiates the veteran's claim.

Once the volunteer has submitted the completed claim, the veteran can expect to receive a decision from the VA within a few days. In some instances, however, there may be evidence that cannot be obtained prior to the sixty-day deadline—most commonly, there may be a situation where the vet requires a VA-provided medical exam that cannot be scheduled until after the deadline. In those situations, the lawyer will still submit all that he or she can by the deadline, and once any outstanding items are collected and submitted, the claim will then be rated within a few days. In either case, the claim will receive expedited treatment. And, in the event the veteran is not awarded the benefits sought, the attorney has the option to continue to handle the matter on appeal, whether pro bono or for a contingency fee.

Since its launch last August, VCAN has proven to be a success: Veterans are receiving their benefits much more quickly than they would without attorney assistance, and the volunteer lawyers have experienced tremendous personal and professional satisfaction when helping these most-deserving wounded warriors receive the benefits they are due. The Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel welcome attorneys from any practice background to join the ranks of those who are already helping our veterans by visiting www.ABAVCAN.org and give back to those who have served all of us.

A version of this article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Connections magazine, published by the American Health Lawyers Association. Reprinted with permission.