Imagine you are a veteran who has filed for disability or other compensatory benefits through the U.S. Veterans Administration.
You think you have filled out every single necessary document and checked every box — only for it to result in a denial. So you decide to file an appeal and get ready to navigate the VA’s bureaucratic labyrinth.
Do you go it alone and hope for the best, or do you turn to a lawyer?
Missouri veterans can turn to University of Missouri School of Law students and its veterans clinic.
MU is home to the only veterans legal clinic in the state associated with a law school, offering its services free of charge. The clinic is partially funded by the state and through donations. Veterans helped sometimes provide a percentage of their award to the clinic, even though there is no obligation to do so, said Angela Drake, clinic director.
The clinic has secured upward of $10 million in benefits since its inception in 2014. Drake has been with the clinic since its start.
Veterans now can rely on MU School of Medicine fourth-year students to help navigate the VA labyrinth through a recently established partnership of the MU law and medical schools.
This partnership came about thanks to second-year law student Mark Buck.
He is a U.S. Army veteran, medical doctor and engineer, who recently finished his family medicine residency before making the transition to law school.
He started with the veterans clinic in the fall and saw that his fellow students were having difficulty with all the medical terminology in the records they were reviewing.
“I found I could be pretty helpful by just meeting with my classmates and explaining some basic medical terminology,” Buck said, who would look through files and make suggestions to his classmates. “(This is) so the veteran is getting the best representation before the VA so they can get the most appropriate claims.”
Making the connections last
Buck essentially became a subject-matter expert with regards to explaining medical records, Drake said.
“He got so busy helping students, we did not have him work on individual files any more,” Drake said. “He was just our resident expert, so to speak.”
The clinic’s case load usually is between 120 to 130 cases at any one time. Appeals can take up to seven years, with one in 14 veterans dying while one is pending, Drake said.
So connecting medical and law school students was necessary to take some weight off of Buck’s shoulders, and so medical expertise still is provided to veterans after his graduation.
“We were lucky enough to meet with Richard Barohn. He was at a veterans clinic tailgate and we kind of floated the idea by him,” Buck said.
Barohn is the university’s vice chancellor for health affairs and incoming dean of the medical school. He also is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.
“He got really excited by (the idea),” Buck said.
The partnership capitalizes on the knowledge and skills of both sets of students, Barohn said in a news release. He was unavailable for an interview.
The connection between the two schools started with the most recent spring semester, Drake said.
“Even before we got medical students involved, Barohn came over and looked at one of the files,” she said. “I was so humbled and excited he took time out of his schedule to give it a dry run before getting medical students involved.
“It helped him understand this might really work.”
Real world practice
The medical student expertise provides links veterans would have to seek anyhow, Drake said.
“If you are a veteran, you have to fill out all this paperwork, assemble evidence, find a doctor to help with the claim and write a proper medical opinion for you,” she said. “It really is overwhelming, especially when you may be suffering from mental health issues or have a traumatic brain injury.”
It is providing real-world experience for the law school students, as well.
“You have a real client, you look at real medical records, you talk to real doctors,” Drake said.
Since appeals can take several years, it also means law school students are learning how to prepare transition memos for the next student to continue the work, she added.
“We are lucky that a lot of our law students stick around with the veteran because they get invested in it,” Drake said.
From engineering to medicine to law school
Buck is a 2005 graduate of West Point. He then was in the U.S. Army for 5 1/2 years as a signal corps officer. He was the one to establish internet connections in the middle of nowhere for his units, he said.
After leaving the Army, he attended Texas A&M, receiving his master’s degree in electrical engineering. An interest in medicine started when he was in the Army, though.
“I got exposed to a lot of the world. There were not enough people providing health care in the various places I was stationed. I started looking in the U.S. and realized there was a shortage of doctors here as well,” he said.
Because of his engineering background, he had an interest in combining that with his medical expertise on biomedical devices.
“There is definitely a bridge to be had between engineers and doctors,” Buck said.
Once in medical device work, he realized this included intellectual property rights associated with such devices, so he applied and was accepted at the MU law school.
While Buck still plans to follow the medical device route for his career, he will keep a hand in assisting veterans with benefit claim appeals, he said.
“I have been blown away by Drake, her whole team and the work they have been able to do over the last several years,” Buck said. “The support they have provided to veterans in Missouri is breathtaking.”
Charles Dunlap covers courts, public safety and other general subjects for the Tribune. You can reach him at [email protected] or @CD_CDT on Twitter. Please consider subscribing to support vital local journalism.