Vietnam veteran files class action lawsuit against VA

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has long experienced a hellishly deep backlog that has caused severe delays of veterans benefits for those in need. One Vietnam veteran has decided to take matters into his own hands, filing a class action lawsuit against the VA.

Conley Monk Jr., the lead plaintiff in the case, is a Marine veteran who said he has waited for years for disability benefits stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder and exposure to toxic chemicals. He said he came under fire in 1969 and 1970 and was exposed to Agent Orange during his time in the war.

The New York Times said he was diagnosed with PTSD and diabetes (sometimes related to exposure of Agent Orange) in 2011 and was denied VA benefits. After appealing that decision in 2013, he has yet to hear anything from the VA on his disability benefits. Monk told the Times that it has been frustrating to “be stuck in limbo.”

“It’s been hard to make ends meet,” Monk told the Times. “And we Vietnam veterans are getting older. We can’t wait forever.”

Reducing the number of claims of claims in the VA backlog has been a focus of VA, but the Times reports that appeals are at an all time high at nearly 300,000. That means much like Monk, many others may be suffering as they wait for a decision on their veterans benefits from VA.

In the opinion of attorney Harold W. Conick, the VA’s backlog could be trimmed by converting the Veterans  paper records to an electronic platform. The VA is apparently in the process of doing this, but it is taking far too long.

Additionally, it would be helpful if VA personnel were more open and cooperative with counsel for veterans in attempting to resolve claims. This is not currently being done; the system is very adversarial to both the veteran and their counsel. “Stone walling” is standard operating procedure at the VA and delays the adjudication of claims. This needs to change to better serve the U.S. veterans in the benefit claims process.

‘Band-Aids’ not enough to keep SSA disability running

There has been a stated level of confusion on how disability benefits through the Social Security Administration will be funded; this level of confusion has not been seen before. Some of the confusion impacts the general public’s perception of SSA disability, but perhaps more importantly, the confounding dilemma of benefit funding may also throw off those in positions of power.

Jason Fichtner, Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, wrote on MarketWatch that this confusion has meant the steps to reform, vital to the survival of the SSA, have not been taken. Instead, he said there has just been a “financial Band-Aid” put on the SSA time and again.

Last year’s Social Security Trustee report found that the disability trust fund could potentially run out in 2016, making SSA disability benefits a likely presidential election issue.

One option Ficther pointed out is “to allow the disability trust fund to borrow from the retirement trust fund for a temporary period. This interfund borrowing would provide the short-term financial patch necessary to ensure that those receiving disability benefits would continue to receive full benefits.” However, this would simply be another Band-Aid for SSA disability. To fully fix the program, there would need to be an honest look in the mirror as a country to see how we want and need to move forward with disability benefits.

In the past, Congress  has allowed the disability and retirement programs to borrow from each other as needed. Recently, there has been Congressional action to stop this transfer of funds, thereby placing the disability program in crisis. This is purely a political move and is not only ill considered, but harmful to a program that many people, who cannot work, depend on to pay for the basic necessities of life.

Since the disability program potentially serves all Americans, it should not be used as a political football. Perhaps a solution to help continue to run the retirement and disability programs is to lift the ceiling on the Social Security income tax cap. This way, higher income individuals pay their fair share into the system and maintain its solvency.

VA accused of changing dates on disability claims

After U.S. veterans return home from stints in battle overseas, many suffer from physical injuries, mental illness and other debilitating symptoms that need to be treated. Sometimes, they simply need a helping hand to get restarted in life; the Department of Veterans Affairs is supposed to be there for them to provide veterans benefits. However, a recent report from the inspector general found that at least one VA office has been changing the dates on claims to make it appear as though the department was moving through its growing backlog at a quicker rate.

In Little Rock, Arkansas, staff said they have been following orders from VA administration to change the dates of on the files in backlog. The inspector general said an average of 20 months passed between when the VA received the documents and acted on it in at least 43 of the cases.

One case, which was made to look as though it was 14 days old, was actually two decades old, meaning the veteran in question may have fallen even more ill or even died while waiting for benefits.

“Right now it’s incumbent upon VA leaders to ensure the claims of veterans affected by this scheme are correctly processed while moving swiftly to hold the responsible employees accountable,” according to House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. “Although I believe Secretary McDonald is trying hard to correct VA’s course, the fact that incidents like this are still occurring highlights the scope of the challenges he is facing.”

If this is happening in one state, under instruction of the VA administration, it is not hard to draw conclusions that it may be happening to veterans in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and other areas near and dear to our law firm’s heart.

It is still too early to know if these reforms will make the VA medical system credible and effective. However, there can be no doubt that the mission of the VA medical system is critical to the care and welfare of U.S. veterans.

Disability issues falling by the wayside

Anyone who has been paying attention to the Social Security Administration’s rate of approval over the past year can tell you that it has slowed down in a very purposeful way.

At the Law Offices of Harold W. Conick and Associates Ltd., we have certainly noticed that there are fewer cases being approved. It is harder than ever for our clients, no matter how strong a case they have or how in need of help they are, to gain disability benefits from the SSA.

Sara Blahovec wrote in a blog post on Huffington Post that this slowdown may, at least in part, be due to the disability rights movement stagnating.

“Worldwide, barriers to inclusivity for people with disabilities continue to be significant,” she wrote, adding that issues of race and gender gain the public’s attention, while disability and health do not. “While various organizations work tirelessly to promote equal rights, disability rights just don’t seem to be captivating the public in the same way.”

One reason, according to Blahovec, may be the fear of increased discrimination. People with disabilities, especially mental health illnesses, are not easily identifiable. They are told to hide their disabilities and “act normal.”

This may be harmful when it comes time to get help, as many people see a person who appears “normal” and do not think much more deeply about it.

“This incentivizes hiding disability status, and so many people are afraid of speaking up because they feel that they will fare better and experience less discrimination,” Blahovec wrote on The Huffington Post’s website.

All across the cadre of judges, the favorable decision are fewer and further between. When favorable, more often than not, the decision less than fully favorable.

In our opinion, this conduct is intentional and widespread. Additionally, it is taking far longer than ever before to have cases progress through the appeals system to be in a position for claimants to receive a decision. This is the SSA’s dirty little secret that no one is publicly talking about. They are attempting to save the system money through artificially reducing the number of claimants approved for benefits.

Congress should investigate this problem and take action to correct it before even more citizens are denied their rightful benefits.

Stress, depression may increase risk of heart attack

Sufferers of heart disease may want to beware of the risks of high stress and depression, as a recent report from Columbia University Medical Center in New York City finds that these could lead to an increased risk for heart attack and death.

Reuters spoke with the report’s lead author Carmela Alcantara, who said high stress and severe depression combined could be especially difficult for adults with heart disease during an “early, vulnerable period.”

In a study by Alcantara and her team, which followed 4,400 people 45 and older with coronary heart disease, it was found that 12 percent had high stress, 14 percent had high depression and 6 percent suffered from both. After a six year follow up, about a fourth of these participants had a heart attack or died.

“More research is needed to understand why psychosocial factors like these are so often tied to heart health in particular,” Alcantara told Reuters.

For sufferers of heart disease, it is important to let your doctor know about any signs of stress or depression, as this will need to be quelled for you to reach optimum levels of health. Severe sufferers of heart disease and/or depression for whom it has become too hard to work should apply for disability benefits via the Social Security Administration as soon as possible, as this can be a great lifeline during tough times.

The symptoms related to stress and depression can significantly interfere with the ability to perform competitive work activity. The Social Security disability program is available to those debilitated by stress and depression symptoms who cannot work.

It’s wise to apply as soon as possible when one realizes that they can no longer perform work activities. The Law Offices of Harold W. Conick & Associates, Ltd has successfully represented numerous clients before the SSA who suffered from severe stress and depression.

Forbes calls proposed VA rule ‘attack’ on veterans, families

A new proposed rule from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is being called an “attack” on veterans and their families by Forbes. Alesha Ebeling writes on Forbes’ website that this rule attempts to prevent people from giving away their assets and applying for veterans benefits, but she notes that veterans believe this may cause harm by making a difficult process even harder and more arduous.

The VA pension rule provides money to veterans and their surviving spouses for daily assistance in necessary activities. Currently, the rule is that if veterans get down to $80,000 in assets, including houses and cars, and have medical expenses that are more than than their income, they may qualify.

The proposed changes would establish a 36 month look-back period, make a new limit of $119,220 and have a 10 year penalty period when it comes to gifts, thereby making it much more difficult for veterans and their families to obtain.

Bernard Krooks, a New York attorney and Forbes contributor, said these rules are “an attack on our nation’s veterans and their families; it’s a huge change from the status quo.” However, the proposed change is coming after attempts to pass a look-back rule in Congress failed, so if this change is made administratively, it can be challenged in court.

The benefit that VA officials want to make more difficult to obtain provides elderly veterans and their spouses with funds for assisted living. This is a very important benefit for our veterans and should not be limited, as veterans have earned these critical benefits through service to our country.

Essentially, the VA appears to want to treat U.S. veterans as welfare recipients by applying Medicaid and Medicare standards to VA benefits. If such rule is imposed upon these benefits, litigation should be commenced to overturn such arbitrary and capricious administrative action.

VA whistleblowers say many troops claims end up ignored

For years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been inundated by a large backlog of troops coming home looking for veterans benefits. With a high number of veterans waiting, the local CBS affiliate in San Francisco reported some shocking news this month: Thousands of claims filed between 1996 and 2009 were put into a file cabinet and ignored until 2012.

An example of how this has impacted veterans comes from Dorrie Stafford, whose husband Wayne was an Army veteran who filed a veterans disability claim in 2004. Wayne died in an accident seven years ago, but he received a letter dated July 29, 2014, thanking him for filing for disability benefits. This left his wife wondering how VA could be so callous, not only in ignoring the claim, but in sending a late reply to a veteran who was already dead.

Rustyann Brown, one of the team assigned to process these claims two years ago, said their VA office was getting letters from elderly veterans and widows begging for help. This showcases the very real need many veterans have to hire an attorney who will fight for their veterans benefits.

“Half of the veterans were dead that I screened. So almost every other piece of paper that I touched was a veteran who had already passed away,” Brown told CBS.

It is absolutely critical that a disabled veteran retain experienced counsel to pursue their VA disability claim. Iis well documented that veterans will have a better chance of success in obtaining benefits with the assistance of legal counsel.

The Law Offices of Harold W. Conick & Associates are available to assist veterans in pursuit of their benefits.

Medicaid, mental health heavily cut from newly elected Illinois governor’s budget

Newly elected Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner announced his budget earlier this month and it contains some cuts that could severely impact those who rely on disability benefits.

Rauner’s budget includes $1.5 billion cut to Medicaid’s Health and Family Services program. This would mean the elimination of specialized mental health rehabilitation facilities, according to The Chicago Sun-Times.

Cuts in Rauner’s budget would also slice $27.5 million from the division of alcohol and substance abuse, $82 million from the division of mental health and $23 million from the Early Intervention Program. Projects which help those in need, including Project Autism and homeless youth services, will also be eliminated under this new budget.

Adding to all of this is a $19 million reduction from the public health budget. All of these services mentioned have potential to touch the lives of those who suffer from mental or physical health troubles.

Most people would agree that the state of Illinois must attempt to reduce its budget. However, attacking programs that support mental and physical health could be false economy.

If an individual remains medically untreated and ill they cannot be productive in the workforce. Additionally, chronic illness is very expensive for all taxpayers. While reductions in these programs may seem to be a  financial solution, it is not only inhumane, but not cost effective over time.

The Law Offices of Harold W. Conick & Associates, Ltd. is committed to assisting the disabled in pursuit of government benefits to which they are entitled.

US needs better coordination of mental healthcare programs

Anyone who has seen a family member or friend suffer through mental health problems can likely tell you: we, as a country, need to do better in ensuring people get the proper mental healthcare treatment.

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that no one is making sure patients, many veterans, get the help they need. No matter who you are, it is essential to get mental health treatment at the first instance of a problem. This will be key in attaining Social Security Administration disability benefits.

The report found, as an example of the lack of coordinator, that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is supposed to be coordinating the 47 programs to address homelessness. However, the report said “it has shown little leadership in coordinating federal efforts on behalf of those with serious mental illness.”

Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., chairman of a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the report is a “much-needed wake up call,” according to USA Today.

“The federal government’s approach to addressing mental illness is a convoluted and disjointed mess,” says Murphy, who is also a child psychologist. “Shame on us if we don’t take action and work on fixing the system wide failures identified in this report so that we can focus resources on helping those in desperate need of medical services.”

A great majority of claimants who apply for Social Security disability benefits suffer from some form of mental illness. Depression is the most common ailment and can vary from circumstantial to life long chronic depression. More resources are required to treat those who suffer from mental illness as, unfortunately, this area of human suffering is currently underserved.

Our law offices are experts in securing and presenting evidence of mental illness to the SSA on behalf of our clients so the can be approved for disability benefits.

Political battlegrounds set for SSA disability benefits

There is some interesting back-and-forth taking place between President Barack Obama and Congressional Republicans regarding the Social Security Administration’s disability benefits program. BenefitsPro reported that the White House proposed shifting payroll tax dedications from Old Age and Survivors Insurance to Disability Insurance trust “while a longer-term solutions to overall Social Security solvency is developed with the Congress.”

Last month, Republicans in the House proposed a rule to block this transfer. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, chair of the House Ways and Means subcommittee and co-sponsor of the House rule, said it is unfair to kick “the can down the road five years” to anyone who relies on the program. However, the proposal from the White House said it is looking to keep payment from SSA disability benefits as consistent as possible.

“The Administration will oppose any measures that privatize or weaken the Social Security system and will not accept an approach that slashes benefits for future generations or reduces basic benefits for current beneficiaries,” according to the White House blueprint.

Current reports say that the SSA can afford to pay full benefits until 2033. However, with the backlog, a large number of people in need of help in and slowing in the approval rate, something will need to give in the near future.

Over our 35 years of practice, our office has seen the Social Security disability benefits program treated as a political football at the expenses of the claimants.

Games are played not only by the Congress, but the SSA as well. All of the legislators, executives and judges who administer the program are highly paid for their services. It is their duty to ensure that the disability program is fairly administered. Sadly, politics often gets in the way of fair and compassionate handling of the program, as is the case currently.

The attorneys at the Law Offices of Harold W. Conick and Associates, Ltd. are committed to zealously fighting for it’s clients so that they receive the benefits they deserve.