Iowa Veterans Lawyer

VA Accredited Attorney, Practicing throughout Iowa in Veterans Disability, Pensions/Survivors Benefits, and VA Appeals

New Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Dr. David Shulkin, President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs, was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on Monday.  Shulkin was previously the undersecretary for health services under the Obama administration.  During his nomination hearings, Shulkin indicated a flexibility regarding care options between the private sector and what he referred to as core VA services, which he seeks to strengthen and improve.  Work is needed on access, accountability, responsiveness, and widening of care options, but Shulkin shied away from any notion that privatization of VA medical care would be a possibility.

Trump articulated a ten-point plan for VA reform during the campaign, citing the following as steps he would take as President to bring about change to the bureaucratic juggernaut that is the modern Veterans Administration:

1. Appoint a VA Secretary whose sole purpose will be to serve veterans. Under a Trump Administration, the needs of D.C. bureaucrats will no longer be placed above those of our veterans.

2. Use the powers of the presidency to remove and discipline the federal employees and managers who have violated the public’s trust and failed to carry out the duties on behalf of our veterans.

3. Ask that Congress pass legislation that empowers the Secretary of the VA to discipline or terminate any employee who has jeopardized the health, safety or well-being of a veteran.

4. Create a commission to investigate all the fraud, cover-ups, and wrong-doing that has taken place in the VA, and present these findings to Congress to spur legislative reform.

5. Protect and promote honest employees at the VA who highlight wrongdoing, and guarantee their jobs will be protected.

6. Create a private White House hotline, which will be active 24 hours a day answered by a real person. It will be devoted to answering veteran’s complaints of wrongdoing at the VA and ensure no complaints fall through the cracks.

7. Stop giving bonuses to any VA employees who are wasting money, and start rewarding employees who seek to improve the VA’s service, cut waste, and save lives.

8. Reform the visa system to ensure veterans are at the front of the line for health services, not the back.

9. Increase the number of mental health care professionals, and allow veteran’s to be able to seek mental health care outside of the VA.

10. Ensure every veteran has the choice to seek care at the VA or at a private service provider of their own choice. Under a Trump Administration, no veteran will die waiting for service.

Shulkin indicated that he is ready and willing to work as Secretary to accomplish these goals.  Time will tell how successful he (and the President) will be in making these changes, some of which are fundamental differences that may be difficult to effectuate with the often glacial pace of change in the VA.

Compensation for Exposure to Burn Pits

Deployed vets worldwide have been exposed to a range of respiratory ailments associated with burn pits.  This is a growing area of disability among veterans, particularly those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Burn pits are open areas where trash was burned to facilitate disposal.  Smoke from materials that were combusted in these pits contained many substances that, when breathed, cause acute and chronic health issues.  Due to the presence of plastics, chemicals, paints, medical and human waste, ordnance, rubber, oils and lubricants, and wood in these burn pits, veterans were exposed to a wide variety of chemical and toxic agents.  These toxins can end up affecting the skin, respiratory organs, eyes, and even heart, gastrointestinal (stomach/intestines), and other organ systems.

While it’s recognized by the VA and the scientific community that exposure to many of these burned materials can be harmful, there is still some dispute as to the role of these materials in health and disability.  The VA is studying exposure and the health of those who have been exposed.

VA has established an Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Registry.  Most vets who deployed after August 2nd, 1990 can join the registry (SW Asian theater) or Afghanistan or Djibouti after September 11th, 2001.

Access the Burn Pit Registry at http://veteran.mobilehealth.va.gov/AHBurnPitRegistry/#page/home.  Those eligible to participate in the registry are also eligible to obtain an optional, no-cost, in-person medical evaluation (not a formal disability examination).

Most VA medical centers also have an individual who is assigned as an Environmental Health Coordinator, who can provide additional information.  Any veteran can file a claim for disability compensation for health problems they believe have an origin in burn pit exposure.  For assistance with any denial of a claim for benefits, contact Iowa veterans’ attorney Joel Fenton at 515-480-1542 or joelfentonlaw@gmail.com.

The Importance of the Claim File – Part Two

There are a number of hidden nuggets of information in most claim files that help your representative get to the key issues in the case.  One of these is the ‘code sheet’ – a document that is generally prepared along with a ratings decision.  The code sheet is the VA’s shorthand reference to important data from a veteran’s entire record.  Think of it as a road map detailing the VA’s route to a denial or a minimal grant of disability.  By examining the described effective dates, impairment ratings, and opinions regarding issues such as service-connectedness and degree of disability, I can generally pinpoint the critical issues that need developed in the case.

The Compensation and Pension Exam is another event where full documentation may only exist in the depths of the claim file.  You’d think that records from this exam would be part of the veteran’s medical record, or something that is routinely given to the veteran as part of his or her care.  This isn’t commonly the case.  Many denials are rooted in an adverse C&P Exam report – it’s critical to get a copy and see what evidence needs to be supplied to overcome a conclusion that there is no nexus between the disability claimed and military service.

Please feel free to contact me at 515-480-1542, e-mail me at joelfentonlaw@gmail.com, or use the contact link on this website to discuss your claim.

The Importance of the Claim File – Part One

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the claims file in a VA claim.  The claims file is the master set of documents and records that document such important factors as the cause and extent of disability or impairment for the veteran who is seeking benefits and/or compensation.  The records contained in this file can be divided into medical and non-medical records.

Medical records are often, but not always from VA facilities and document routine visits, emergency care, long term therapy, test results, and similar records that are generated any time someone seeks health care.

Non-medical records are supplementary but still very relevant to the issues of cause and extent of disability.  These can include statements of fact from the veteran or someone who served alongside him or her (often called a “buddy statement”). Service records, employment records, records of past VA claims, and miscellaneous files can also be a part of the claims file.

Typically I will order a c-file from the regional office once I have consulted with a veteran, reviewed their latest claim decision, and agreed to investigate his or her claim.  Some claim files are small, others are massive collections of thousands of pages of records.  The first task is to determine if there are parts missing.  Like most bureaucracies, the VA can and does lose track of records, misfiles records and documents, or fails to send an entire file to a requesting party.  I take the file and prepare an organizing index to help me determine what might be missing, and what the file needs in terms of development to successfully argue the veterans’ claim, and what complications there might be in terms of legal arguments or medical facts that will need to be addressed.

Please feel free to contact me at 515-480-1542, e-mail me at joelfentonlaw@gmail.com, or use the contact link on this website to discuss your claim.

Continuing tragedy of veterans’ suicides

Recent data indicates that, on average, 20 veterans commit suicide in the United States every day.  The problem is even more pronounced among younger veterans.

The VA has taken steps to address the issue, including expansion of staffing at the crisis hotline (800) 273-8255, an increase in efforts to identify veterans who are at risk for serious mental health issues, and creating more positions for mental health counselors as well as telephone-based therapy.

Mental health issues are a serious problem and can be the basis for disability claims.  Many veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, or other mental health related issues.  These can stem from combat experience, traumatic head injury as a result of combat or non-combat injuries, exposure to chemical or other agents as a result of military service, or sexual abuse or violence that occurs when a veteran was on duty.

Joel Fenton can assist you in evaluating a claim related to mental health issues, as well as the difficult process of documenting the service-connectedness of such a claim (if required); developing medical, lay, and military records evidence; and demonstrating the effect of mental illness on work and daily life in order to document its disabling effects.  Call him today at (515) 480-1542, or e-mail him at joelfentonlaw@gmail.com to discuss or set up an appointment to review your claim.

Why hire an attorney to assist on a VA claim? What about NOVA membership?

Veterans who are trying to navigate the complex bureaucracy of the Veterans’ Administration can enlist the aid of a skilled veterans’ law attorney to greatly increase their chances of a favorable outcome.  The legal training and experience of an attorney who is familiar with these kind of cases, as well as disability law and medical issues is invaluable in determining if a veterans’ claim has merit, and what the best evidence and legal arguments are to prove that claim.

Membership in NOVA (National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates) is a key indicator that an attorney is knowledgeable and experienced in veterans’ claims. Members must be:

  • actively engaged in representing claimants pursuing VA benefits and accredited by the VA;
  • must agree to minimum standards of practice in representation of a veteran, including thorough review of the claims folder and timely filings and responses to all VA and Court designated timeframes for filings, pleadings, and motions;
  • must attend one Continuing Legal Education (CLE) course specific to veterans’ law, and certify attendance and accreditation to NOVA.  Sustaining member must attend periodic NOVA national conferences where experienced practitioners gather to share ideas and learn about new developments in the law.

Joel Fenton is an attorney who practices in veterans’ benefits law, and is a sustaining member of NOVA.  Contact Joel to discuss your claim for benefits at (515) 480-1542 or joelfentonlaw@gmail.com.

New website!

This is the first post on the new website for the veterans law practice of Law Offices of Joel E. Fenton, PLC.  Watch for periodic posts of information regarding veterans law in this space.

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