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Q&A with an attorney: Handling cases across the nation

In many regions of the U.S., it may be difficult to find an experienced attorney in the areas of veterans disability and social security disability. This makes it exponentially more difficult to win disability benefits, as there may be tactics for success that an individual would otherwise miss.

The Law Offices of Harold W. Conick and Associates Ltd. serves clients across the country for both VA benefits and Social Security Administration benefits. While the office is located in Illinois, Conick has traveled to the west coast, south and other areas of the country to attend hearings.

Conick answered a few questions about working remotely as a client’s counsel for disability cases.

Question: How can you work as counsel for a client in another part of the country?

Conick: Well, from a practical standpoint, we generally handle cases in the Midwest but we do handle cases out of the state when the need arises. We handle cases nationwide for veterans and social security disability. We normally concentrate on the Midwest for SSA disability, but VA disability can be national. We can handle VA cases in any state no matter the circumstance. The reason is there’s very rarely a hearing in the VA case, making it easier to manage than a SSA case would be.

The cases can be taken on either by phone, email communication or mail. Documents necessary can be handled that way, as well as medical records and any other info that needs to be communicated. We communicate with the government through electronic filing as well.

Q: How does this work specifically for a VA case?

C: The client sends in their VA rating decision or other benefit denial and then I analyze whether or not we can be of service to them if they are appealing a rating decision

Q: What about the SSA?

A: Social security would be the same thing procedure, we’d just have to establish if the ultimate site of the hearing is in a location that we could attend with the client. That’s going to depend on where it is, what state it is in. I will go to other states or region if the case warrants it. I have traveled to Arizona and other further away places.

Q: Is there an advantage to hiring you compared with a local attorney?

A: The advantage is the levels of experience that my staff and I have is, in general, probably higher than anyone they could get from local counsel. The key is to win, not convenience. You want to hire somebody who has a lot of trial experience and has a staff that can work up the medical file to have enough evidence to win the case. We’re experts in that.

A woman from Michigan hired us because she liked the way the staff treated her. She wasn’t getting that from other people she called and that was her reason for hiring us.

Q: Is this going to be happening more in the future? Is it becoming more accepted?

A: I think its trending that way. It is possible to do it but theres still the connection between the client and lawyer that needs to be established that makes the client feel comfortable that they’re doing the right thing by hiring the firm. You’re not going to hire somebody unless you feel comfortable with them, regardless of the location.

VA backlog growing larger

Although there has been progress reported in slimming down the backlog for veterans benefits at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Military Times is reporting that the issue is not going the way VA officials would like currently. The backlog of cases pending for four or more months has risen by approximately 1,000 cases, nearly reaching 400,000, according to VA officials.

While the backlog of cases fell by about 200,000 over the course of 2013, it has held steady at nearly 400,000 since November 2013. VA said in a statement that they are confident that their plan will eliminate backlog by 2015 as they had planned, but researchers from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said these backlog numbers show VA officials have not put the pieces in place to address the issue in the long term.

American Forces Press Service reported that a new technology to help expedite veterans benefits claims has been created by the U.S. Departments of Defense and VA. The Health Artifact and Image Management Solution will try to ensure military service records are immediately available to VA.

“We recognized DoD needed to assist the VA by providing additional data on the benefits side, so we put teams together and they came up with the solution [to] generate an electronic service treatment record document,” David M. Bowen, director of health information technology at the Defense Health Agency, told the new source.

VA officials are very good at paying lip service to their progress in reducing the backlog, but the reality is the needle has not moved much in the direction of real improvement for VA cases. Clearly, veterans have to possess patience and be confident in the merits of their claim to prevail.

Routinely following up with VA concerning the status of a claim can help. The Law Offices of Harold W. Conick and Associates always stands ready to assist the veteran in pursuing their VA benefits.

Getting disability benefits not as easy as many think

Although there are many politically motivated misconceptions with regard to those with dsiability qualifying conditions, a recent study from Columbia Business School showed that it is not as easy to get disability benefits as many think. The report, titled “Unemployment Insurance and Disability Insurance in the Great Recession,” found that those who are unemployed and uninsured are not able to easily procure Social Security Administration benefits.

Columbia Business School Professor Andreas Mueller said this research provides that those who are unemployed don’t file for disability after other benefits are finished.

“The evidence is just not there. As a matter of fact, fewer than 2 percent of workers whose unemployment benefits had expired actually applied for disability insurance,” he wrote. “While SSDI applications did rise somewhat over the course of the recent recessions, there appears to be no significant increase in SSDI applications in periods where the number of UI exhaustions dropped to zero due to the large UI extensions that were enacted during those times.”

The takeaway from this, Mueller said, is that unemployment extensions will not cause any further harm to the solvency of the SSA program and SSDI trust fund.

The SSA statistics reveal that claimants have a better chance of winning their benefits when they are represented by counsel than when they attempt to go it alone. The Law Offices of Harold W. Conick and Associates have successfully represented claimants from the initial application through the hearing before the Judge. We will go to the appeals council and federal court if necessary. We stand ready, willing and able to fight and win for our clients.

Benefits not out of question for veterans with a criminal record

Prison and jail are never good, but being incarcerated does not completely eliminate the ability to get veterans benefits for those who have served the country. The Journal Times said of the 23 million veterans in the U.S., 140,000 are in prison or jail currently. However, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will still grant benefits after imprisonment. In fact, a veteran is considered to be free as soon as their sentence is completed. This can be key for procuring benefits that could help save a veteran’s life and treat them for illnesses.

“There is a new understanding of and focus on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” the website said. “Not much was known about PTSD right after the Vietnam War, and most applications were denied. Today the VA better understands PTSD and is more eager to grant service-connected disability compensation as a result.”

VA’s website said once a veteran is convicted and imprisoned for more than 60 days, they will have their disability payments reduced. For example, veterans who were rated 20 percent or greater will be limited to 10 percent disability rate. Keeping this in mind, it is clearly best to stay out of trouble and keep benefits as full as they can be, but all hope is not lost if a veteran stumbles once they are home.

The attorneys at the Law Offices of Harold W. Conick and Associates are well acquainted with the detrimental effects that PTSD symptoms can have on the mental well being of returning service members. It is important for the health and mental wellness that the veteran claimant seek out appropriate treatment.

SSA judge says system may need changes

As anyone with disability qualifying conditions who have applied for benefits with the Social Security Administration can likely tell you, there are some glaring flaws in the system. D. Randall Frye, an administrative law judge for the SSA, wrote in an editorial for The New York Times that there are many inefficiencies in the system that he believes can be improved upon.

One thing that needs to change is proper representation for both sides. While claimants can and should bring an attorney to most types of disability hearings, he said “the taxpayers have no advocate on their behalf to ask questions, challenge medical evidence or review the 500 to 700 pages of materials that make up an typical case file.”

Another change he said needs to be made is a leader with judicial experience. Currently, he said the SSA is run by an acting commissioner and what he calls “unelected bureaucrats” who are concerned about how many cases each judge can see. Randall goes as far as to ask President Barack Obama to appoint a permanent leader who has experience in the field.

“The system needs to be made more trustworthy and fully transparent,” he wrote, adding that he does not believe the actions of the few who have tried to defraud the system should not ruin SSA for those who truly need it.

While most of the administrative law judges who are employed to hear disability cases do the best they can to be fair, they are not an independent judiciary. This may make them feel undue pressure from the managers of the SSA to process cases more strictly than the law provides.

Judges are expected to protect the federal government’s resources from non=meritorious cases. They are also expected to be fair to the claimants, which can be a difficult job. The answer to this problem might be the formation of an independent administrative law judge system that would truly be neutral and not burdened by non-judicial agency managers.

In any event, the Law Offices of Harold W. Conick & Associates are skilled trial attorneys who are able to present evidence and persuasive legal arguments. This will help claimants successfully obtain decisions regardless of any flaws in the Social Security Administrative law judicial system.