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Sorting through the VA

The U.S. Office of Veterans Affairs (VA) has become a subject of national scrutiny as now former secretary Eric Shinseki has resigned amid accusations of misreported wait times for veterans at VA hospitals, which allegedly obscured the lengthy period many veterans endured to see a doctor. 

Six months since the scandal broke headlines, USF Health and Stetson University College of Law professors are partnering to attempt to ease the burden on veterans by assisting in faster treatment. 

Stacey-Rae Simcox, Stetson law professor and head of Stetson’s Veterans Advocacy Clinic, said the partnership offers veterans an opportunity for better aid. 

“The partnership between USF and Stetson is, as far as we know, the first of its kind in the nation because it partners a medical school with a law school to help veterans get the disability benefits that they’ve earned,” she said. 

Simcox also said the partnership between medical and law students significantly increased the likelihood of veterans receiving care while also giving students a chance to train between disciplines. 

According to Simcox, the VA overturns its decision to withhold care to veterans 82 percent of the time when medical students collaborate with law students. 

The partnership has strong merits, but Dr. Charles Lockwood, head of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, said veterans are often faced by other challenges such as the variety of services offered by the VA. 

“The VA is many different things, not one thing,” he said. “You get multiple sets of benefits beyond just health.” 

The purpose of USF Health in the partnership is to decide if these disorders or behaviors are related to time in service, so that the veterans who need aid the most can receive health care. 

“Some of it may be a lack of full knowledge of what their rights and benefits are, and they may have been denied those benefits based on an incomplete assessment,” Lockwood said. “Our job is to represent them and do an assessment.” 

Dr. Isis Marrero, a psychiatric behavioral neuroscientist at USF Health, said post-traumatic stress is one the most common afflictions she sees in veterans, but it is common for veterans to also experience generalized anxiety disorder, depression and traumatic brain injury, which can alter behaviors and moods. 

Simcox also said the VA could also be overwhelmed due to a lack of information, which is where Stetson Law can collaborate with USF Health to make a case for a client. 

“The people who are deciding these cases at the first level are not lawyers and they aren’t doctors,” she said.  “It’s hard for them to go through all of these complicated issues, and if they don’t have the right information available, they have to figure it out. If all the evidence can be brought together, law students can package the information, hand it to the VA and change their mind.” 

Simcox has personal experience dealing with the complicated VA benefit claims system, as both she and her husband were army, or JAG, lawyers. 

Even both law professionals were confused by the complicated system for filing Simcox’s husband’s claim, which led them to establish a veteran’s clinic at the College of William and Mary, and then later on at a larger scale at Stetson. 

“My hope is that this will open up to a wider range of professionals,” she said. “Eventually this is going to become broader because we want to take care of this veterans’ issue holistically; we want to see how we can look at this veterans’ issue in 360 degrees.” 

The partnership also places a strong emphasis on the role of the community in helping veterans receive their benefits more quickly. 

“I think that that is the least we could do for this population,” Marrero said. “In many cases, they are misrepresented by their psychological conditions that they have.”

Simcox agreed on the importance of the community, especially because she said the VA is dealing with a vast quantity of veterans seeking benefits. 

“As a community, some of this is on us, to support the veterans who have volunteered to put their life on the line,” she said. “It trains our young professionals to be good contributors to the community around them, and it trains them to be sensitive to veterans’ issues when they may not have had the chance to see that otherwise.”