Pension Benefit Available for Wartime Veterans

If you or your loved one is a wartime veteran, there is a little known pension benefit that may be available.  This benefit was earned by wartime veterans under the following circumstances:

  • You served for 90 days or more in active duty service;
  • You were discharged for service under other than dishonorable conditions;
  • You meet certain income and net worth guidelines; and
  • You are 65 years or older or have a permanent and total non-service-connected disability, or in a nursing home, or receiving Social Security Disability Benefits.

The pension benefit is not only a monetary benefit, it also provides an additional Aid and Attendance benefit, if necessary.  This could include coverage for in-home nursing care and care facilities.  For additional information you can watch this video from the VA.

 

TRICARE Travel Benefit for Combat-Related Disabilities

Military Retirees receiving Combat-Related Special Compensation (CRSC) may be entitled to reimbursement for travel-related expenses for travel greater than 100 miles from a referring provider’s location.  The travel must be for medically necessary, nonemergency specialty care for Combat-Related Disabilities.

All of the following requirements must be met to be eligible:

  • Receiving Retired, Retired Retainer, or Equivalent pay;
  • Received an award of CRSC from a CRSC Board;
  • Reside in the U.S. and covered under TRICARE Standard or TRICARE For Life;
  • Received a Referral from your Provider for care over 100 miles for the provider’s location for treatment of the combat-related disability.

To learn more about this benefit, go to the TRICARE webpage at www.tricare.mil.

When & Why to Hire an Attorney for your VA Disability Claim

The following information is adapted from the website of the National Organization of Veterans Advocates (NOVA).  Follow the links to learn more.

When to Hire an Attorney/Agent

A recent change in VA law now allows a veteran to hire an attorney or qualified agent once the VA’s appeals process has been initiated; that is, once a veteran has filed a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) at his or her Regional Office (RO).  Unfortunately, the change in law (see 38 U.S.C.S. § 5904) only applies to claimants who filed their NOD on or after June 20, 2007.  If the veteran filed the NOD prior to June 20, 2007, then he or she must wait until the BVA issues a final decision before hiring an attorney or agent for a fee.

Why Professional Advocacy is the Veteran’s Best Option

In short, the reason to hire an attorney or agent is because VA laws and regulations are complex and the Board of Veterans Appeals retains an attorney for every appeal.  It makes sense for a veteran to be on equal footing when their claim goes through its most precarious stage.  As of 2007, a veteran must wait some six months before receiving a decision from a VA Regional Office (VARO) regarding a claim for service-connected compensation. Then, if the veteran’s claim is denied, the appeals process at the local VARO level can take another six months to two years before it is finally forwarded to the next level of the appeals process, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA) in Washington, DC. Once there, a veteran must wait approximately two years for a decision from the BVA. Similarly, the delay at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) on average is also two years. All said, if a claim for VA benefits is denied, a veteran can spend 10 years or more waiting for VA to make the right decision.  Veterans who pursue their appeals for VA benefits without professional representation are at a severe disadvantage.

Success Rates Improve with Professional Advocacy

Veterans have many options and agencies to help assist and represent them in securing their claims. However, veterans represented by attorneys have the lowest denial rate in front of the BVA, at 17.7 percent, well below the average 24.2 percent denial rate, according to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals Annual Chairman’s Report (Fiscal Year 2011).

Veterans with attorney representation before the BVA also are among the most likely to have their appeals allowed according to the report, with a 30.1 percent success rate. Veterans who are represented by claims agents have a slightly higher success rate at 32.7 percent, but the agents were responsible for only 71 successful appeals, whereas attorneys handled 1,295 cases.

Why Hire a NOVA Attorney/Agent

At the link above, you will find a list of NOVA sustaining members by State. To be listed in our directory, these attorneys and agents must meet certain practice and training requirements.

These members:

  • MUST be actively engaged in representing claimants pursuing VA benefits, and be accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs and/or admitted to practice at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
  • MUST agree to comply with minimum standards of practice in representation of a veteran, including a thorough review of the veteran’s claims folder and timely filing and responses to all VA and Court designated timeframes for filings, pleadings, and motions.
  • MUST attend one Continuing Legal Education (CLE) course every 24 months, which is specific to veterans’ law, and certify to NOVA the confirmation of such attendance.

Following the links in this article to learn more.

Tom Hagen is a member of NOVA and recently received a scholarship from the organization to attend their Spring 2014 Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Veterans Courts Offer Alternative

First posted March 16, 2014

When I returned to private practice with Bradley & Guzzetta last fall I was asked to join the team of the 5th Judicial District Veterans Court located in Mankato, Minnesota.  This week I will attend three days of training in conjunction with the Minnesota judicial system’s Veterans’ Treatment Court Planning Initiative.  The 5th District has also selected me to attend Veteran Court Conference 2 in Los Angeles in May.  My service with the court is entirely voluntary, and I am pleased and excited to have this additional opportunity to serve America’s veterans.
So what is a Veterans Court?  These courts first began in 2008 and there are now 130 of them in 40 states.  Also known as veterans treatment courts, they are an alternative to the regular criminal justice system.  They’re meant to address the unique needs and circumstances of veterans while recognizing their service and have been very successful in the short time they have been in existence.  Veterans courts are considered “problem solving” courts and use a multi-disciplinary team of professionals to address the needs of the vets in the program while promoting sobriety and stability.  One in six Iraq and Afghanistan vets suffer from substance abuse and 81% of vets arrested have a substance abuse problem.  Since 2004, the number of vets treated for mental illness and substance abuse has increased 38%.  Simply warehousing these people as may have happened after past wars is not the answer and fails to recognize the unique circumstances of their service on our behalf.
The court is designed for U.S. military veterans charged with misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony offenses who are often struggling with addiction, mental illness and/or co-occurring disorders. The goal is to promote sobriety, recovery and stability through a coordinated response that involves cooperation and collaboration with the traditional partners found in problem solving courts, with the addition of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care networks, the Veterans Benefits Administration, volunteer veteran mentors and veterans support organizations.  For example, the following are some of the members represented on the team:  the vet court presiding judge, probation officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, county veterans service officers, the jail administrator, volunteer mentors, and drug and alcohol counselors.  One of the key participants is the VA justice outreach coordinator who can keep the group informed of the veteran-defendant’s upcoming VA medical appointments, etc.  Other things the court may address are health care, emergency financial assistance, chemical dependency and mental health counseling, employment and skills training assistance, temporary housing and other referral services.
So how does it work?  After a veteran is charged with a crime, either prior to or after a plea or finding of guilty, the veteran-defendant with the consent of the prosecuting attorney may be offered the option to voluntarily participate in the program.  Participation is always voluntary.  The veteran-defendant then attends veterans court on a regular basis, as often as twice a month, for the duration of their probation.  The team meets before the court session for progress updates on each veteran and addresses any current needs the veteran may have with respect to getting back on their feet.
Veterans courts appear to be working. 67% of vets in the program successfully complete their treatment and those that receive VA services experience an 88% reduction in arrests from the year before.  As VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told Veteran Conference 1 in December, “Instead of either jailing veterans who have been brought up on charges or releasing them back to the streets, you have underwritten treatment as a powerful option for dealing with those who have broken our laws.”
Tom Hagen is a 25-year member of the Minnesota National Guard where he serves as a Lieutenant Colonel and judge advocate.  He deployed to Iraq twice with Minnesota’s 34th “Red Bull” Infantry Division.  Tom is a member of the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates and has practiced law in Minnesota since 1997.  He concentrates on helping veterans and their family members receive the benefits they deserve.

Overview: The VA Claims Process

First posted November 5, 2013

“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country.” George Washington, 1789

“…let us…care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan…” Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865

As demonstrated in these quotes, the mandate to care for those who have “borne the battle” has been ingrained in our National ethos since our earliest days.  I am so inspired to be contributing to this heritage by focusing a legal practice on my fellow veterans.  And I am grateful and humbled by the willingness of Bradley & Guzzetta to add this service to their practice.  In this column I’ll provide a brief summary of the VA disability claims process.  A future column will describe the lawyer’s role in this process and how, when and why to hire one.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) administers a variety of benefits and services that provide financial and other forms of assistance to servicemembers, veterans, their dependents and survivors. One of the most common benefits is Disability Compensation (DC). Disability Compensation is a tax free monetary benefit paid to veterans with disabilities that are the result of a disease or injury incurred or aggravated during active military service (“service connected”). Compensation may also be paid for post-service disabilities that are considered related or secondary to disabilities incurred in service and for disabilities presumed to be related to circumstances of military service, even though they may arise after service. Generally, the degrees of disability specified are also designed to compensate for considerable loss of working time from exacerbations or illnesses. (See www.va.gov) The bottom line is that veterans who can prove an illness or injury connected to or aggravated by their service may be eligible for benefits. This summary is not meant to be a detailed guide as to how to apply, or all of the details that accompany each step, detailed instructions for which can be found several places online.

VA Disability Compensation is, of course, for veterans. What is a “veteran” is not always as obvious as it may seem and is the first step in determining eligibility for DC benefits. For purposes of qualifying for benefits, the VA identifies veterans as “those individuals who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and [were] discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.” Again, veteran status is not always clear under this definition, but that is a topic for another post

As heard frequently in the media, the VA has a large backlog of claims and the process of applying for and receiving final determination may take several years. The steps to the claims process are as follows:

1. File a Claim. A claim can be filed at the local VA office or online. It is common for veterans to receive the assistance of their county veterans’ service office, or one of the service organizations (DAV, VFW, American Legion, etc.). A surviving dependent of a veteran may also file a claim for dependency and indemnity compensation, death pension, and accrued benefits.

2. Receive the decision.

3. If not satisfied with the decision, the applicant has one year from the date the decision is mailed to file a Notice of Disagreement (NOD). The NOD must be submitted in writing and express a desire that the matter be reviewed by the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA). After sending a NOD, the veteran may request that an employee of the VA Regional Office, known as a Decision Review Officer (DRO), review the file. Once a NOD has been submitted, the veteran may hire an attorney to assist in the appeal.

4. After the NOD is reviewed, the VA will send the veteran a Statement of the Case (SOC), which will provide a detailed explanation of the laws, evidence, and regulations used in deciding the case. In addition, the veterans will receive a form for confirming that they still wish their appeal to go forward (VA Form 9).

5. Substantive Appeal. Using VA Form 9, the veteran provides specific reasons that he/she believes the VA decided the case incorrectly, within 60 days of the date the SOC was mailed or within one year of the date the VA mailed the original decision, whichever date is later.

6. Decision by the BVA. The BVA reviews cases in the order received. According to the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates, as of 2011 it could take as long as 883 days for the BVA to review the appeal and make a decision. The BVA will grant the claim, deny the claim, or send it back for additional matters. The veteran’s options if the claim is denied are to try and reopen the claim at the Regional Office, ask the BVA to reconsider or review based on error, or appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC).

7. Appeal to the CAVC. If the BVA denies a claim, an appeal can be filed with the CAVC, which has exclusive jurisdiction to review adverse decisions of the BVA. This special federal court of appeals reviews the record for error. It is not a trial court and there are no witnesses or new evidence allowed. At this point the VA is represented in the proceedings for the first time by government attorneys opposing the appeal.

Although this summary of the VA disability claim process was short, the issues can be legally complex. Questions of veterans status, connection of the veteran’s service to the injury or illness, and the disability rating derived therein represent just a few of the reasons a veteran should consider a trained advocate on their side. A future post will cover the role of an attorney in representing a veteran in the appeal process and provide a guide as to when and why to hire an attorney for the appeal.

Tom Hagen is a 24-year member of the Minnesota National Guard where he serves as a judge advocate.  He deployed to Iraq twice with Minnesota’s 34th “Red Bull” Infantry Division.  Tom is a member of the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates and has practiced law in Minnesota since 1997.

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