Vets With Mental Health Issues Need Legal Advocacy
by Logan Campbell June 27, 2019
On National PTSD Awareness Day, we are reminded just how prevalent mental health illnesses are among the U.S. veteran population. In a 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) mental health services, it was estimated that of the approximately 4.1 million veterans who served in the post-9/11 era, 23.2% may suffer from PTSD and 41% possess some kind of mental health need. Reliable numbers from earlier generations of U.S. veterans are harder to come by, but it is fair to assume that there is a large demand for mental health services across the larger U.S. veteran population as well, which, according to the VA, totals over 19 million. While the rate of PTSD within the veterans’ community is deeply troubling and affects a significant minority of the total veteran population, it is also important to note that the majority of veterans do not have PTSD nor any other mental health condition. The misguided stereotype that all or most veterans experience PTSD actually harms veterans and their ability to successfully reintegrate into civilian life.
The first step for those who are living with mental health illnesses should be to seek professional medical assistance. Unfortunately, high costs of health care, among other factors, often inhibit access to mental health services and medical assistance more broadly. For veterans with service connected disabilities, including those related to mental health, the VA provides a number of benefits designed to alleviate the costs of medical care. For example, veterans with a VA recognized service connected disability qualify for no cost treatment from VA facilities. Moreover, any veteran with a service connected disability rating of 50% or higher can receive no cost health care for all their health needs and for their prescription medications.
While veterans experiencing service connected mental health problems and other disabilities are entitled to these federal benefits, accessing them is another story. A recent report issued by the New York City Bar Association stresses the need for increased free legal representation of veterans, highlighting the disproportionately low number of New York veterans receiving benefits (less than 17%) relative to national estimates that 30-50% of U.S. veterans are entitled to VA benefits because of a service-connected health issue. This enormous gap in received vs. entitled benefits stems from the convoluted and complicated application process required to procure VA benefits, which particularly burdens low-income veterans lacking the resources to effectively navigate the system.
Because of these reasons, advocates and lawyers are crucial to helping veterans with service-connected health problems – including those pertaining to mental health – acquire the VA benefits they are entitled to, and the care that they need. By helping veterans obtain service connected disability compensation, the City Bar Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project (VAP) makes VA medical assistance more accessible to the veterans it serves, allowing them, their families, and their communities to live healthier, happier, and fuller lives.
For access to no cost health care does not only impact veterans’ mental and physical health – it touches other parts of their lives as well. Each increase in a veteran’s service connected disability rating comes with a substantial increase in monthly compensation and, frequently, substantial retroactive benefits for the veteran. For low-income clients trying to survive in a city as expensive as New York, this increase in income can make a life-changing difference both for the veteran and for their families.
In the first half of 2019 alone, VAP and its pro bono attorneys helped three veterans with PTSD secure a total of over $250,000 in retroactive benefits and approximately $4,800 in monthly recurring benefits. When they first started working with VAP, each of these veterans had to bear some or all of the financial burden related to their health care costs. However, with their increased ratings, all are now eligible to receive no cost health care from the VA, enabling them greater access to the medical assistance they need to better cope with their PTSD and their other health conditions.
While this is a great start, there are still too many veterans who are neither receiving adequate compensation nor health care from the VA for their mental health conditions. Increased financial support for legal services for veterans seeking VA benefits is critical to decrease the aforementioned disparity, and allow veterans to access the federal care and support they are entitled to. Further, as the Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 continues to be implemented and the claims process becomes more cumbersome, the need for quality, affordable legal services for veterans will become even more important.
Logan Campbell is a Project Coordinator with the Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project.
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