From disputes over VA benefits’ eligibility to a coronavirus-fueled rise in evictions, the former servicemembers seeking help from Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC) arrive with a myriad of legal issues.
Often, they also carry the burden of multiple medical issues, including substance-use disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and increased risks of suicide. An average of 20 veterans commit suicide each day – a higher body count than the total number of military casualties in the war in Afghanistan, the nation’s longest.
While the difficulties of navigating the VA benefits system are well known, CVLC clients have far easier access than many to these sorely needed services, thanks to an innovative collaboration between the legal aid organization and the VA Connecticut’s Errera Community Care Center.
By integrating lawyers into health-care settings – in this case, CVLC’s legal clinics are literally down the hall from VA facilities in Newington, Orange and West Haven – this medical-legal partnership has led to “significant” improvements in housing, income and mental health, a Yale University study of nearly 1,000 veterans living here and in New York concluded.
Put simply, the provision of legal services has led to better health outcomes. Improvements in veterans’ mental health appeared as early as three months in the program, with continued progress after one year. Strikingly, those improvements in mental health were evident even if the veterans lost their legal battles.
Medical-legal partnerships are in place at 30 VA facilities (and hundreds more locations serving other populations, including one at Yale-New Haven Hospital serving at-risk children).
It’s a great start, but not nearly enough. Thirty-nine states still don’t have such facilities available for veterans, VA records show. The annual CHALENG Survey done by the VA demonstrates that civil legal issues are many of the top needs of homeless veterans. It also confirms that nearly three-quarters of households with former service members or other military personnel reported experiencing legal issues in the past year.
Earlier this month, the Connecticut approach to coordinated care for veterans took center stage at a virtual meeting of the Legal Services Corporation, a federally funded nonprofit that is the largest funder of legal aid programs across the country.
The increasing need for civil legal aid among former servicemembers led LSC to create a Veterans Task Force, which hosted representatives from CVLC, VA Connecticut’s Errera Community Care Center and Yale’s medical school at the virtual session.
Military service members dedicate their lives to defending our country. Once they return home, they shouldn’t have to continue fighting for access to justice and the care and support our country promised them.
Ronald Flagg is president of the Legal Services Corporation. Darren Pruslow is a supervising attorney at Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.