WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — At the College of William and Mary, a small group of law school students has tackled a very large problem.
They help military veterans applying for benefits to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, taking on the most difficult and complex cases. Under supervision from an attorney, these students donate hundreds of hours of legal assistance, fast-tracking cases that would otherwise be hopelessly stuck in the system.
They track down witnesses to verify claims, pore through stacks of records and partner with students at other Virginia schools who bring other specialties to bear, such as psychology students who can assess a claim of post traumatic stress disorder.
At the moment, about 14 law school students are handling some 50 cases at what is formally known as the Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefit Clinic.
Sen. Mark R. Warner has followed the clinic's progress since it began taking cases in 2009. Now, amid rising criticism of the VA and its backlog of cases, Warner said he sees more than a law school clinic doing good work.
He sees a national model.
Virginia's senior senator is urging VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to replicate the W&M model at law schools across the country. It won't solve the crisis alone – there are hundreds of thousands of backlogged cases – but Warner said it could reduce the most complex cases.
In a letter to Shinseki, Warner noted the clinic has partnered with schools across Virginia as the Helping Military Veterans Through Higher Education Consortium (HMVHE), better known as "humvee."
"The idea of having these volunteer caseworkers at law schools is an added tool," Warner said. "What William and Mary has done, they've kind of put together a how-to book."
Warner, a former high-tech entrepreneur from Northern Virginia, has shown a fondness for looking outside the Beltway to solve problems that bedevil Congress. When embarrassing mix-ups plagued Arlington National Cemetery, he enlisted a technology council from Northern Virginia to examine Arlington's record-keeping system and recommend changes.
The beauty of expanding the William and Mary model is that it can happen at little cost – and it can skirt gridlock. If the VA wants to promote the idea, it can.
"We don't even have to pass a law," Warner said.
Shades of complexity
Stacey-Rae Simcox is the managing attorney of the Puller Clinic. She's a former officer in the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps and graduated from William and Mary Law School.
Simcox called Warner's idea "a great honor," and said the clinic is developing start-up materials for other sites. In fact, the story is already spreading.
"We get phone calls from other law schools all the time," she said.
The clinic indirectly helps hundreds of veterans without formally taking their cases. The students might briefly explain a claims form or steer a veteran to another organization that can help. It reaches out to homeless shelters and gets referrals from a variety of sources.
Their actual case investigations offer different shades of complexity.
Some are procedurally and legally difficult, such as a Vietnam veteran who sought benefits in the 1960s, was denied and never pursued the matter. Now he wants to take it up again, and that requires a certain burden of proof.
Other cases are medically complex, such as a veteran who was never diagnosed with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury while on active duty and now hopes to prove that his problems stem from past military service.
Students might use Facebook or other social media to track down supporting witnesses. For one Gulf War veteran who claimed PTSD from an event, the clinic found a book written about that event to help verify his claim.
Even better, the law school students packaged the claim in a neat, orderly fashion, topping it with bullet points. The easier it is for the VA to process, the faster the claim can be processed.
The investigations have paid off, Warner said. Among the clients whom the clinic has assisted with disability ratings, the average rating has increased 26.25 percent, earning clients $520,884 in benefits over the last year.
During the 2011-12 academic year, clinic legal services offered to veterans would have cost $428,325 in the private market.
A crescendo of criticism is building in Congress over the claims backlog.
On Monday, Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine joined 65 members of the Senate in sending a letter to President Obama urging swift action to reduce the backlog. The letter received a nod of thanks from Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who said impatience over the backlog "is one of the few genuine bipartisan issues in Washington today."
Last week, more than two dozen members of Congress sent a letter to Obama about the backlog problem, saying the VA is dysfunctional.
Another group has taken a more aggressive tack. Concerned Veterans For America recently launched the website MillionVetBacklog.com. It includes a petition calling on Obama to fix the VA backlog and relieve Secretary Shinseki. "We're starting to get to the point where people are paying attention," said Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America.
Hegseth said the problem at the VA stems from both bureaucratic inertia and ineffective leadership. While praising Shineski's past military service and commitment, Hegseth said Shinseki simply hasn't gotten the job done.
He acknowledges that the VA has received a huge influx of cases by allowing more claims related to Agent Orange and because younger veterans are entering the system due to the drawdown in the Middle East.
"But if you're going to do that, and you have vets coming home, you better plan for it," he said.
Hegseth likes Warner's idea..
"It makes a lot of sense," he said. "To be fair, a lot of the backlog is that you get these complex claims, and the burden of proof is on the VA – which is a long process. It's a lot more complicated on the inside . . the unique aspect of the law students is they understand how to put a case together."
Shinseki did not immediately respond to Warner's letter, but the agency is taking steps to reduced the backlog.
Starting April 19, the VA began making provisional decisions on its oldest claims, allowing eligible veterans to more quickly receive compensation. It has vowed to prioritize veterans who are homeless, terminally ill, former prisoners of war, Medal of Honor recipients and those facing financial hardship.
Kayla Williams, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, wrote recently in TIME magazine that the VA has reached out to veteran service groups and cutting-edge business leaders like Craig Newmark of craigslist.org.
Veterans can learn more about disability benefits on the joint Department of Defense—VA web portal eBenefits at http://www.ebenefits.va.gov.
Defining a career
Kevin Barrett worked at the clinic during his third year at William and Mary law school, and it was more than a good experience. It focused his career in a new direction.
Initial years of law school are grounded in theory and reviewing old cases, and he said the clinic taught him the other side of the job: how to interact with clients and manage their expectations, as well as the patience required to pore through documents.
"It's probably the most valuable experience I've gotten out of law school," the 26-year-old Miami, Fla. native said.
A single case can involve dozens of health-related claims, and Barrett said the students investigate every one.
"We request every single medical record the VA requests and more," he said. "We'll contact that random hospital . . . and we'll sit down with thousands of pages of medical records."
Doctor's records are written in longhand, not typed. And that stereotype about doctors having bad handwriting?: It's true.
Barrett said he's called doctors about old records that are indecipherable. If the doctor can't remember the case, he'll scan the handwritten notes into a digital document and email it to the doctor's office. It's not the most glamorous work, but it is the kind of duty that young lawyers will end up doing.
"Your first-year associates are never going to see the courtroom," he said. "Document review is what I do best."
But Barrett already has a career path. After taking the bar exam, he will enter the U.S. Marine Corps. He's seen what happens to veterans when they don't document what happens to them while on active duty. He won't let his Marines make that mistake.
"I really want to advocate for their future," he said.