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VA’s General Counsel to Address Department’s Efforts to Serve the Needs of Veterans – by Caitlin Kilroy

This Monday, April 28th, William Gunn, the General Counsel for the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), will speak at the New York City Bar Association on the needs of our nation’s veterans. He will be joined by the VA’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Hughes Turner, on a panel moderated by Phil Carter, who served as the National Veterans Director for President Obama’s campaign and is now a scholar at the Center for a New American Security. We invite you to attend to learn more about what we as attorneys can be doing for our veterans.

The enduring hardships many returning soldiers face are often exacerbated by the difficulties they encounter in obtaining the benefits to which they are entitled. There are an estimated 190,000 veterans living in New York City, many of whom are disabled as a result of their military service. The VA administers a range of benefits, including disability compensation, and seeks to meet the healthcare needs of veterans. The VA is responsible for evaluating any service-related conditions and determining the amount of compensation benefits to be paid.

Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are applying for VA benefits at higher rates than veterans of previous wars. The number of claims filed by this group is expected to increase even more as the years unfold. Studies show that the peak years for government healthcare and compensation costs for veterans usually comes 30 to 40 years after those wars end. Vietnam veterans make up the majority of the VA’s current caseload. The VA also works on claims from veterans of World War II, Korea, the Gulf War, as well as peacetime veterans.

The delays and large backlog in the disability claims process has been a subject of concern for many years. As of April 2014, the New York Regional Office of the VA had nearly 9,000 claims in process. Fifty-six percent of veterans who file a claim for benefits at the New York Regional office will wait over 125 days before receiving a decision. The average wait time is 161 days. In many of these cases, receipt of a decision is not necessarily the end of the process. The veteran may need to appeal an improper denial of a claim for benefits or the assignment of an incorrect disability rating or effective date. Historically, the wait time for a decision on an appealed claim will be even longer than the wait time for the initial decision.

At the City Bar Justice Center, we have operated a pro bono program for the past six years, helping low-income disabled veterans claim their VA benefits. The Veterans Assistance Project is funded by the Robin Hood Foundation. Veterans who have legal assistance completing their initial benefits claims are more likely to receive the benefits to which they are entitled and less likely to need to appeal a decision in the future. Attorneys are able to help veterans develop evidence, gathering medical and service records that may be difficult to obtain or incomplete. Attorneys are also able to assist veterans in demonstrating the link between their current disabilities and their time in service. Our Project works closely with veterans programs at Legal Services New York and the Urban Justice Center to meet the other civil legal needs of the veteran community.

Many of the clients we serve are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The monthly benefit payment for a veteran with a service-connected disability can range from $130 per month to over $3,000 per month, depending on the severity of the disability and the number of dependents. VA benefits are an important anti-poverty resource and can make a huge difference in veterans’ ability to pay for housing, food, clothing, and take care of their families. The VA will also pay retroactive benefits back until the date the claim was first filed. Veterans who have been waiting a long time for their claims to finally be decided correctly can receive significant retroactive awards. The Veterans Assistance Project has helped some veterans with severe disabilities receive retroactive awards of over $100,000.

To learn more about what the VA is doing to help veterans, please register for Monday’s event here. If you would like to get your firm or corporate legal department involved in the Veterans Assistance Project, please email Caitlin Kilroy here.

Caitlin Kilroy is Staff Attorney for the City Bar Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project

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