Sen. Warner keeps pushing on W&M approach to VA backlog

Sen. Mark Warner

By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: May 14, 2013

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Sen. Mark Warner is pressing his case for law schools across the country to follow a "playbook" developed at the College of William and Mary to reduce the nation's backlog of veteran disability claims.

And he's trying to enlist 99 influential people to the cause: his fellow senators.

Warner on Monday sent a letter to his senate colleagues, urging them to consider how law schools in their home states could follow the W&M example of providing free legal help to veterans who have complex and incomplete disability claims.

Starting in 2009, the Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefit Clinic at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law has tapped law school students to help selected veterans with their disability claims. The school partnered with Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond to provide psychological services as well.

Puller was the first law clinic in the country to adopt such a holistic approach, Warner said. It has since formed alliances with 15 colleges and universities across Virginia through the Helping Military Veterans through Higher Education Consortium, informally known as "humvee."

Last month, Warner wrote to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki asking the VA to create a formal partnership between the VA and the clinic. Shinseki has not yet responded, and a call to the VA's public affairs office Monday was not returned.

In his letter to fellow senators, Warner urged cooperation on a nationwide approach that could be implemented with little cost, noting that the clinic "has prepared a playbook containing guidance how to effectively establish similar pro bono programs to serve our military veterans."

"If we work together as colleagues to extend this program to other law schools across the country, we could provide tangible assistance to many of our veterans by ensuring that complex claims are completed in a more comprehensive and timely manner prior to submission to the VA," the letter states.

Among clients whom the clinic has assisted with disability claims, the average rating has increased 26.25 percent, earning clients $520,884 in benefits during the last year, according to Warner.

During the 2011-12 academic year, clinic legal services offered to veterans would have cost $428,325 in the private market.

Growing concern

As of April 13, about 825,000 applications for disability compensation were awaiting a decision at the VA, according to the Truman National Security Project. Of those, 590,000 had been waiting more than 125 days, the VA's definition of a backlogged claim.

The backlog has prompted a steady drumbeat of criticism.

Last month, 67 U.S. senators signed a letter urging President Obama to make elimination of the VA claims backlog an urgent national priority. Some senior executives at the VA will not receive performance bonuses in the wake of complaints from Congress of lack of progress.

The problem has even spread to the Comedy Channel, where Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" has lambasted the agency.

Shinseki has vowed to eliminate the backlog by 2015. He's partly blamed it on the job of converting massive amounts of paper records to digital format, getting better links with the Defense Department and the swelling ranks of veterans.

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