Thousands of American veterans are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and mental disabilities. Many face challenges that they never expected. For example, veterans with acquired traumatic brain injuries (TBI) or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often find that there are insufficient community-based services available to them.
Access to medical care, benefits and housing for these vets has been limited and often chronically delayed; some returning soldiers have been unable to get jobs and have faced homelessness.
These troubles are further exacerbated by the fact that many veterans with newly diagnosed disabilities may not be aware of their legal rights under state and federal disability laws, and also may not know about social, health and other available resources.
Here we’ll explore some of the newer laws and services available to veterans with service-related disabilities. NEW
In 2008, Congress enacted the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act (VCCLA) with increases of 4.8 percent to 5.8 percent for disability compensation for qualified veterans with military-related disabilities. The act also increases compensation rates for, among others, some dependants of veterans with disabilities, and survivors of deceased veterans who acquired disabilities while serving their country.
EXPANDED LEGAL SERVICES
In December 2007, the Veteran’s Pro Bono Consortium was established through the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), to provide veterans with legal representation for such issues as obtaining (or maintaining) disability benefits. Many major law firms throughout the US have also formed coalitions to provide pro bono legal representation to veterans with disabilities.
At this writing, the NVLSP was also planning to begin a legal advocacy program for Iraq and Afghanistan war vets: Lawyers Serving Warriors (LSW) will provide pro bono legal services including help with disability claims, veterans’ benefits and discharge from military service.
New educational and community-based advocacy services are now available to vets with disabilities, including information on benefits available to those with spinal cord injuries and how to obtain them as provided by the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), which also offers educational outreach to Hispanic veterans with spinal cord injuries.
A group of attorneys and students at the University of Virginia Law School opened a law clinic in March 2008, to provide legal representation to veterans who have become disabled as a result of their military service. There may be other state and local volunteer lawyers and law school clinics available. Call your state bar association, or check out its website to see what resources may be available.
LAWS, REGULATIONS, GUIDELINES
In 2008, the Veterans’ Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act was passed to improve services provided by the Veterans Administration. Some of these include expansion of:
• substance abuse treatment
• enhanced care for veterans with a mental illness and/or substance abuse problem
• pilot projects on transition assistance services for families of veterans with disabilities
• enhanced health services for veterans living in rural areas
• epilepsy centers
• comprehensive chronic pain policy
• appropriations for veterans at risk of becoming homeless
HOUSING GRANT OPPORTUNITIES:
Recent legislation makes it easier for veterans with service-connected disabilities to obtain accessible housing. Specifically, a federal law authorizes the Veterans Administration to provide housing grants, such as the Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) grant and the Special Housing Adaptation (SHA) grant, to veterans with service-related disabilities. The law was changed to permit qualified veterans to receive multiple grants to pay for either construction of new accessible homes or modification of existing ones.
Additionally, the statute now provides for Temporary Residence Grants that permit eligible veterans with service-connected disabilities to receive funding to make their temporary housing accessible.
EMPLOYMENT LAW GUIDELINES:
One goal of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) guidelines is to support employment of vets with service-related disabilities. These guidelines lay out the requirements of employers regarding veterans with service-related disabilities, both under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.
PROTECTION FROM CREDITORS:
In New York, the recent Exempt Income Protection Act shields veterans and others with disabilities who receive government financial benefits, from unlawful collections practices imposed on them by creditors. This new law prevents creditors from freezing the bank accounts of debtors who receive income that is exempt from collections proceedings, including individuals receiving benefits from the VA. While this is currently a law only in New York, it may serve as a model for other states.
The resources included in this article can’t solve all problems facing veterans with disabilities returning from war, but they can make a significant difference in the every day lives of vets and their families.
by Deborah Dorfman, Esq.
deputy director of the Disability Rights Legal Center
To request a pro bono attorney from the Consortium, contact the National Veterans
Legal Services Program at (202) 265-8305, ext. 152.
Veterans Administration va.gov
Department of Veterans Affairs
EEOC guidelines eeoc.gov
Assoc. of Service Disabled Veterans asdv.org
Blind Veterans Association bva.org
Disabled American Veterans Headquarters Cincinnati, Ohio (877)-I Am A Vet (877-426-2838)
California Paralyzed Veterans Association, 5901 East 7th Street, Bldg. 150, Room R-204, Long Beach, California 90822, (562) 826-5713
Disability Rights Legal Center, 919 Albany Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90015, (866) 999-DRLC, TDD (213) 736-8310
National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), 900 Second Street NE, Suite 211, Washington, DC 20002, Phone: (202)-408-9514, Fax : (202)-408-9520, TTY: (202)- 408-9521
National Veterans Legal Services Program and the Veteran’s Pro Bono Consortium Washington D.C. (202) 265-8305
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 451 7th Street, S.W., Washington D.C., 20410, (202) 708-1112, TTY: (202) 708-1455
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 1801 L Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20507, 800-669-4000, TTY: 800-669-6820