South Florida veterans whose disability claims have been lingering for at least four months will be getting a special offer from the Department of Veterans Affairs: a free attorney.
The regional VA office in St. Petersburg is one of two claims centers in the nation to be tapped for a pilot project slated to start early next year. The Veterans Claims Assistance Network will provide lawyers at no cost to vets with disability claims backlogged at least 125 days and who have no one, such as a service officer with a veteran's organization like the American Legion, working with the VA on their behalf.
How it will work: Vets who meet the requirements will receive a letter from the VA, offering them assistance from either a veterans service officer or a specially trained pro-bono attorney. The project – a joint effort between the VA, the American Bar Association and the Legal Services Corporation – will cover only disability claims, not ones for pensions such Aid and Attendance or other benefits.
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- Veterans Affairs
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
- Petersburg (Petersburg, Virginia)
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Those interested will be directed to a website, where the vets will be matched with a representative.
The network is the latest VA initiative aimed at reducing the huge claims backlog that has drawn Congressional fire over the past year. There were more than 1 million claimants waiting nationwide in 2012, VA official Collette Burgess told the Sun Sentinel in June; about 4,000 died with claims pending that year.
The VA pledged to purge the backlog by 2015 and, in April, instituted a policy to tackle the oldest claims first.
In March, there were 52,241 disability claims pending in the St. Petersburg office, which serves all of Florida. Today, there are 43,697, said VA regional spokesman Bruce Clisby. But more than half of those current outstanding claims are more than 125 days old.
Charles Dykes, a Military Order of the Purple Heart service officer who works out of the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center in Riviera Beach, said wait times are shorter "but it's a slow improvement." He had 23 applications processed in October, more than any month previously – but still has no answer for 156 claims
Owen Walker, director of the Broward County Veterans Services Center, said pension claims take even longer than those for disability. And he has some pending applications for widows' benefits that were filed two years ago.
Walker questions how much the network will help. That's because probably only about 2,000 claims in Florida will qualify, as most veterans seeking benefits have had help filing.
But what makes the effort noteworthy is that it brings private attorneys into the claims process early – something that has never been done before, said Michael Allen, director of the Veterans Law Institute at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.
In fact, for years it was a felony for a lawyer to charge more than $15 to file a veteran's claim, Allen said. A 2006 law eased those restrictions. But attorneys still can't be hired to represent vets in the claims process until the claim has been denied and the appeals process starts.
"I think this pilot program is designed to see if there is a way, by introducing lawyers early in the process, if the veteran is more likely to receive the benefits they are due sooner than later," said Allen, who is the co-chairman of the American Bar's Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Dykes said any extra help should benefit unrepresented vets. Incomplete claims often are behind the delays he sees: "If the evidence isn't in their file, it gets denied," he said.
The pilot project, which may expand next year to other regions beyond St. Petersburg and Chicago, will end in 2015.
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