As anyone who’s ever tried to navigate an insurance claim can tell you, the paperwork can get pretty intimidating. Add to that the complexities of an ever-changing federal agency, and it’s not surprising that so many veterans don’t get the benefits and medical care that they are legally entitled to from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Impacted both physically and mentally by years of service, vets often struggle with the application process, and by the time the denial letter arrives – 20 pages of complex legalese, all saying ‘no’ – they are ready to throw in the towel and walk away.
And that’s where Jason Mendoza steps in.
In 2007, a new area of law was established, allowing lawyers to act as guides and advocates for veterans. Previously, lawyers could only charge $10 for their services, making VA services a pro bono side project for a few firms, but never the primary focus. However, the new laws meant that a niche had opened for a new kind of law firm, and Jason was perfectly positioned for it. After all, navigating the world of veterans’ benefits and the VA was something Jason knew quite a bit about – after leaving the Marine Corps for law school, he’d had to navigate his own claims and knew just what veterans were up against. He’s also realized that not only was he good at it, but that this was a perfect opportunity for him to make use of his law degree, his own experience with the VA, and with military personnel and their needs, as well as giving him an opportunity to use his skills and experience to help his fellow vets.
When getting the right form submitted to the right department can mean the thousands of dollars’ difference in benefits and shave years off of a claim, strategy – knowing the system, and knowing how to work the system – becomes critical. Words matter. A form can end up going to a variety of people at different experience levels, and you never know where your file is going to end up. Jason understands this and crafts a strategy for each of his clients. He appeals any denied services or approved services where he and his clients disagree with the ratings, and submits and files depending on who he thinks might see the forms. His nimble navigation of the system often meant that veterans who had been denied for years suddenly began to receive benefits – ones that they would be entitled to for their entire lifetime.
Before COVID hit, Jason had been successful in business for five years, filing documents, going to the VA court for formal and informal hearings, and creating appeals strategies for an ever-increasing load of clients. The VA was doing well, too, and their new organization meant that timelines were improved, and Jason could move even more cases through the appeals process. Advertising wasn’t necessary – simply through word of mouth, veterans who had heard about what he had accomplished reached out, hoping he could help them, too.
Once the pandemic hit, though, the usual four-to-five month cycle of appeals and approvals ground to a halt. Never one to slow down, Jason used his free time to help veterans, many of whom were also at loose ends due to shutdowns, prepare new claims – all pro bono. While he enjoyed helping, the pro bono work meant that his own bills weren’t getting paid, and despite being busy with all of the paperwork, he found the lack of results during the period frustrating. By the time June rolled around, the frustration had turned into worry. Without some kind of funding, his law firm wouldn’t be able to go on. If his firm closed their doors, that meant the number of firms specializing in veterans’ benefits would drop by 50%.
Then, his brother-in-law, a fellow lawyer, mentioned to Jason that he had been awarded PPP funding for his law business through Prestamos CDFI. No stranger to legal and financial processes, Jason reached out and was surprised by how simple the process was. “I thought it would be a lot more complicated,” he said with a laugh. He raced to get his business paperwork in order, and the next thing he knew, he was approved.
The new funds meant Jason got his firm through the worst of the slowdown – and it meant that during that time, another 10 to 15 veterans were helped while they waited for appeals to start being approved again.
By August of 2020, Jason feels that they made it over the hump and is back looking towards the future. All of those pro bono claims he helped with in the beginning of the pandemic? They’re starting to come through now, and many are moving on to appeals, his bread and butter. Fees are starting to come back in, and his website, http://www.vabenefits4vets.com, is getting flooded with new clients. He’s taking on more claims, with the goal of staffing up and hiring more attorneys to work with him. He’s in the enviable position of not chasing after work, but strategically managing the ever-increasing workload he has, all with the goal of maximizing his time to help as many veterans as possible.
One of the key pieces of Jason’s services that make him so uniquely situated is his experience with military personnel and their attitudes towards healthcare. Trained to ‘tough it out’ and pride themselves on their endurance, many veterans don’t reach out for healthcare when they first leave the service. As they get older, though, their medical issues increase and often develop into secondary issues. PTSD becomes migraines, or stomach issues develop from untreated stress and anxiety. Jason works with his clients to understand that their treatment isn’t a handout but is fully earned: medical service in exchange for military service. Once they accept that, he helps them take the next steps towards applying and receiving their benefits.
An Arizona native, Jason is happy to be a resource for local veterans as they navigate the VA system. His goal, though, is to one day be able to help veterans nationwide. At the rate he’s going, that shouldn’t take very long at all. If you or anyone you know needs help with their VA claims, you can find him at http://www.vabenefits4vets.com.