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Joe Surkiewicz: Veterans’ legal assistance conference features chair of top VA appeals board

Joe Surkiewicz: Veterans’ legal assistance conference features chair of top VA appeals board

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At next month’s 8th Annual Veterans’ Legal Assistance Conference & Training, private lawyers can catch up on the latest in helping veterans secure disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

That extends from the basics all the way up to advanced training for experienced practitioners (i.e., helping vets exposed to hazardous chemicals, such as Agent Orange and emissions from burn pits).

Attendees at the all-day, June 3 event at the University of Baltimore School of Law also will get insight to the latest changes in the appeal process at the VA: The keynote speaker is Laura Eskenazi, the acting chairman of the board of veterans’ appeals in Washington.

It should be interesting.

“The VA hasn’t made significant changes to its appeal process in many, many years,” said Hugh McClean, director of UB Law’s Bob Parsons Veterans Advocacy Clinic and a visiting assistant professor. “It’s the most sweeping change to veterans’ disability benefits in years, and it’s coming to a head this Memorial Day.”

Eskenazi, a UB Law grad, is a key player in the upcoming changes to the appeals process, according to McClean said.

“Everyone agrees that the current system is broken,” he said. “The question is whether the new proposed appellate process that VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald offers takes away any veteran rights.”

Details about the process, however, are scarce.

“The process is convoluted,” McClean said. “It’s hard to target a clear picture of the changes proposed. A lot of it has happened behind closed doors.”

One thing is certain: The VA is looking for finality in claims. After making a lot of progress in clearing a backlog in the initial appeals slot that reduced backlogs from more than a million to less than 200,000, now it’s time to target delays at the final level.

“Which puts the burden on vets to reduce the number of claims,” McClean said. “If a vet elects to appeal a decision by the board of appeals to the courts, there’s a real question about whether that claim is forever closed. Veterans may actually be deterred from seeking judicial review by the courts.

“I’m afraid too many vets will not fully understand that the case could be decided against him and permanently closed,” he added. “Our hope is that the VA will address these issues before Memorial Day.”

At the conference, morning trainings are free for lawyers who agree to a pro bono commitment. Those sessions are Basic Training 101, Advanced Training for Practitioners: Hazardous Exposure, and Mentor Training 101: Veterans Mentoring Veterans in Baltimore City Veterans Treatment Court.

After Eskenazi delivers her keynote address at lunch, concurrent afternoon sessions will cover federal disability programs (Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance and TDIU); child support basics; military discharges and character of service determinations; and best practices for new benefits practitioners.

Advanced registration is required, and out-of-state attorneys are welcome. To register, visit

Conference organizers include the Homeless Persons Representation Project, Maryland Legal Aid, Neighborhood Legal Services Program, the Pro Bono Resource Center of Md., UB Law, the Bob Parsons Veterans Advocacy Clinic at UB, and the Veterans’ Affairs and Military Law Section of the Maryland State Bar Assoc.

The event is co-sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Homelessness & Poverty, the Maryland Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, the Veterans and Military Law Section of the Federal Bar Assoc., and the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is [email protected].

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