As published by ISBA Illinois Lawyer Now – Alice Kush, Ex-Officio, ISBA Health Care Law Section
In an October 2014 survey performed by the prestigious Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, half of respondents in military households in southern Illinois identified access to VA healthcare benefits and the wait times for care at VA facilities as a veteran’s greatest challenge. The ISBA Healthcare Section Council began researching this problem last year and soon realized that many of these veterans really needed access to lawyers to help them with problems that they have developed as a result of their service. We found three lawyers, working for Land of Lincoln, who work very hard to provide legal services to veterans. However, significant legal services are provided by the Veterans’ Legal Clinic at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. That clinic fielded over 1,000 calls from veterans in 2014 with their staff of law students and faculty as well as the assistance of 350 attorneys who volunteer their services. Veterans have come to John Marshall’s legal clinic from all of the state.
The growth and success of veterans’ clinics at law schools around the country led the ABA to adopt a Resolution supporting the development of veterans’ clinics in 2014. Law school clinics provide low cost legal services and equally important, they provide a central location where veterans can go to find help accessing the legal justice system.
Veterans’ Legal Clinics provide pro bono assistance to veterans who are seeking disability, educational and medical benefits from the Veterans Affairs Administration. There are approximately 800,000 veterans residing in Illinois and approximately 100,000 of those veterans have service-related disabilities and many more have legal issues that are either directly or indirectly related to the time that they spent in the service. In addition to the services provided by law students under the supervision of licensed attorneys, the Veterans’ Legal Clinics recruit, train and manage a network of Illinois attorneys providing pro bono services by matching the volunteers with veterans and assisting the volunteer attorney with research and support.
The application for veteran’s benefits is long and can be difficult. Attorneys are required to complete a three hour CLE program before they become involved in the veterans’ benefit process – it is no surprise that some veterans have difficulty with the forms. (IICLE offers the 3-hour CLE program for free. It is entitled “VA Accreditation Training.” IICLE also offers a 4- hour free CLE program entitled “Access to Justice for Rural Veterans.”) Many veterans experience delays in the processing of their applications or denials of their claims because of errors in the application. The process for appealing a denial can take up to 8 years and requires a second opinion from a non-VA physician which is an extra cost of the veteran. These delays can have severe consequences for the veteran and their family.
A significant advantage that Veterans’ Legal Clinics offer to veterans is their participation in the Veterans’ Claims Assistance Network (VCAN). This program, which is a joint program between the ABA and the VA, provides an expedited VA review of a veteran’s initial claim when it is prepared with the assistance of law students in a Veterans’ Legal Clinic. Since the students have been educated in how to prepare the claim there are fewer errors. The expedited review assists in alleviating the current backlog (approximately 450,000 claims throughout the country). Accurate and adequately prepared applications can avoid inappropriate denials the necessity of lengthy appeals.
In addition to disability claims, the clinics can assist veterans with applications for discharge upgrades and record corrections. Many of the veterans who were victims of sexual harassment or assault, including members of the LGBT community, receive less than honorable discharges which result in the loss of benefits despite the fact that they were victims.
Another example of the access to justice that law students and volunteer attorneys who work with the John Marshall Veterans’ Legal Support Center and Clinic provide is that they represent veterans in the Cook County Veterans’ Treatment Court and in the Federal Enclave Misdemeanor Court. Law students are allowed to attend and appear on the record under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 711 in adversarial proceedings thus gaining invaluable court room experience. However, the most impressive aspect of work with the Veterans’ Treatment Courts is their outstanding statistics. Mark Kammerer, Coordinator of the Cook County Veterans Treatment Court System, has prepared a report on the data collected since the Veterans Court began in 2009. Cook County has seen a savings of $2,256,454, annually, based on the decreased cost of custody days and other court related cost! While this program is great for the veteran and his or her family, it is also very good for the taxpayers.
In addition to these specific services for veterans, law students learn to identify other legal issues that the veterans have such as housing, family law, employment, bankruptcy, debtor/creditor and landlord-tenant disputes. Assistance with these issues can be arranged through referrals to other clinics at the law school or through the network of volunteer attorneys. An example of this service is the work being done at SIU law school. There are significant problems in that part of the state, for example, Crain’s’ Chicago Business reported in 2014 that new VA patients who requested appointments in the past 10 years were still had not been scheduled for an appointment as of June 2 in the following VA hospitals: Lovell – 53 patients waiting; Jesse Brown – 64 patients waiting; Danville – 122 patients waiting; Hines – 140 patients waiting; and Marion (located in the Carbondale area) – 494 patients still waiting. A social worker at the Marion VA reached out to Joe Cervantez, a Williamson County Assistant State’s Attorney, to help some veterans who had legal problems that were interfering with their ability to receive and benefit from medical treatment. As Joe explained, many of the veterans have legal problems due to how long they were deployed. Family life is adversely affected by prolonged deployments, not to mention the impact of the veteran’s health problems including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. As a result, veterans find themselves involved in divorce and custody battles that the veteran who can’t find or hold a job can’t afford. The loss of custody or loss of a home creates even more stress for the veteran who is already struggling. Joe quickly received 23 veterans who needed a lawyer to help them deal with their legal problems that occurred either as a result of their military service or were exacerbated by their deployment. Considering the extreme need, Joe reached out to other attorneys in the community to take cases and he reached out to the SIU law school for assistance.
SIU is trying to open a veteran’s clinic, but funding for state schools is difficult right now. SIU has received a small grant which has allowed them to establish a “Hot Line” that veterans can call. The Hot Line provides law students with experience performing intake interviews. The school is still perfecting a Referral Network process that can contact local attorneys who are willing to represent veterans. As the calls for this assistance have increased, the school has been taking law students from its other clinics out to veterans’ facilities to meet with veterans and assist in resolving their legal issues. SIU is in the process of establishing a Veteran’s Legal Assistance Program clinical externship and has received approval to search for an externship coordinator. It is anticipated that the coordinator will lay the groundwork for the clinical externship throughout the Spring 2016 semester. The clinical externship is expected to launch during the 2016-2017 academic year.
Veterans’ Legal Clinics at law schools in other states have developed Medical-Legal Partnerships with VA health care providers. By simply responding to the needs of veterans, Joe Cervantez, SIU law school and other attorneys in the Carbondale area are creating an informal Medical-Legal Partnership. They work with personnel at the hospital to address the legal issues that complicate a veteran’s medical recovery. The service provided to veterans by lawyers can be every bit as important to their health as the medical care they receive. For this reason, the Healthcare Section proposed this Resolution to the ISBA Board.
If you would like to contribute, no amount is too small, to support the SIU veterans’ clinic (their anticipated budget for one year is approximately $115,000 which offers an excellent return on the investment because so much of the work is performed by students and volunteers) please send you charitable donation to: the SIU Foundation, 1150 Douglas Drive, Mail Code 6804, Carbondale, Illinois 62901 with Veterans Legal Clinic in the Memo line or you can contact Tom Britton, Professor Emeritus and Director of Development at 618-453-8980 or ThomasB@Foundation.SIU.Edu. If you would like to volunteer to help the veterans in the southern Illinois area, you can contact Joe Cervantez at JCervantez@williamsoncountySA.com.
Charitable donations to John Marshall Law School Veterans’ Clinic can be mailed to the John Marshall Legal Support Center & Clinic at 315 S. Plymouth Court, Chicago, Illinois 60604, Attention: Brian Clauss, Executive Director. You can contact Brian directly at email@example.com regarding a donation or to volunteer.
If you know of a company or foundation that might be willing to give a grant to these veterans’ clinics, please contact the individuals identified above. Remember that even the smallest gift can make a significant impact on the lives of our veterans because so much of this work is done by volunteers and law students.
Finally, please tell veterans and their families that these legal services are available to them. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women who serve in our armed forces – this is something that lawyers are uniquely qualified to do for our veterans.