Warner & Colleagues Introduce Legislation to Help Reduce Disability Claims Backlog & Veteran Homelessness Through Legal Clinics
U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced legislation to increase cooperation between the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and veterans legal clinics, such as the Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinichoused at the College of William and Mary, or the Mason Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic (M-VETS) at George Mason University. The Veterans Legal Support Act of 2020 would allow the VA to provide funding to law school legal clinics that provide pro bono legal services to veterans.
Some law schools and their student volunteers are making significant progress in reducing disability claims backlogs and veterans homelessness in communities across the country. Under attorney supervision, students provide a range of pro bono legal services, including assistance with disability claims, foreclosures, bankruptcies, divorce, child custody and some minor criminal cases. By assisting veterans with complicated benefits claims, legal clinics are turning the VA's most time consuming cases into organized applications that are significantly easier to process. In addition, preventative services like expedited claims assistance and legal counsel offer veterans an opportunity to address challenges before they worsen, often resulting in significant long-term savings to the government.
"Veterans legal clinics do the crucial work of providing quality and essential legal services to vulnerable vets who otherwise may not be able to afford it. These clinics also provide important practical training for law students as they help veterans receive benefits that they frequently cannot access," said Sen. Warner. "Given the enormous sacrifices that these brave individuals have made for our nation, we owe it to them to explore innovative solutions that allow them to get the assistance they need and the benefits they've earned in a more timely manner. That's why I'm proud to introduce the Veterans Legal Support Act of 2020 -- a bill to enable the VA to provide funding to legal clinics dedicated to serving our nation's veterans."
"The Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic of the William & Mary Law School has been at the forefront of efforts to assist veterans while educating future lawyers who are imbued with a deeply held public service ethos. Since its establishment in 2008, the efforts of William & Mary Veterans Benefits Clinic students and staff have resulted in the awarding of over $53 million in projected lifetime benefits to veterans. The Veterans Legal Support Act of 2020 would help the Puller Clinic expand efforts to meet the pressing unmet needs of veterans in Virginia and would greatly assist in establishing a more stable foundation for the Clinic's continued operation," said Michael Dick, Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.) and Co-Director, the Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic.
"The Mason Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic ("M-VETS") strongly supports the Veterans Legal Support Act of 2020, which would provide critical funding for law school veterans clinics across the country in their pursuit of securing vital benefits and free legal assistance for our nation's veterans. Established in 2004 as the first clinic of its kind at any law school in the United States of America, M-VETS provides free legal assistance to the veteran and military community in a variety of matters, including Virginia civil litigation matters, family law, consumer protection issues, wills and powers of attorney, as well as assisting with matters before the Department of Veterans Affairs ("DVA") and various administrative boards, including discharge upgrades, record corrections, military pay and entitlement matters, and DVA disability benefit appeals. The funding from this bill would enable M-VETS to grow its staff, expand its scope of services, and subsidize filing and administrative fees for indigent veterans to ensure their access to justice," said Timothy M. MacArthur, Director & Clinical Professor, Mason Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic (M-VETS).
"Too many veterans are stuck in the VA's claims backlog, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and hindered their access to the benefits and services they've earned. We have an obligation to use every tool available to assist the brave men and women who've served and sacrificed for our nation, which is precisely what our bill would help do," said Sen. Shaheen. "Some of our nation's law schools are greatly reducing processing times for challenging VA benefits claims and expanding access to legal services and I commend these students and faculty for their outstanding efforts. Our legislation would authorize the VA to work more closely with these programs and help other schools establish their own courses, ramping up efforts to cut down the VA backlog and expediting help for veterans seeking assistance. Leader McConnell should hold a vote on this common-sense legislation as soon as possible so together Congress can take a meaningful step forward to improve services for our veterans and their families."
"When our servicemembers made a commitment to defend our nation, our country also made a commitment to make sure they have the resources and support they deserve when they come home," said Sen. Klobuchar. "While we can never repay the debt we owe to our troops and veterans who have risked their lives for this country, this legislation will help ensure our veterans have access to the basic legal assistance they may need to get the benefits they've earned."
Sen. Warner has been a longtime supporter of legal clinics dedicated to serving our nation's veterans. In April 2013, he sent letters to then VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and President Obamaurging them to partner with the Puller Clinic to help veterans cut through red tape and reduce the VA claims backlog. Sen. Warner also sent a letter to each of his Senate colleagues promoting the Puller Clinic model, and met with Secretary Shinseki to advocate for the Puller Clinic program as a national model to help the VA solve its backlog challenges. He also worked to secure the Puller Clinic's certification as a national "best practice" program, making it the first law school clinic in the nation to receive the VA designation.
The text of the bill is available for download here.