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5 Ways the VA Has Made Improvements Over the Past 5 Years

Five years ago I walked through the doors of this law firm and I had no idea what I was doing. I was told I’d be working with Veterans to help them get the benefitsblog-photos-045 they deserved. “Heck yeah,” I thought. Veterans are really awesome and I am sure that getting them their benefits would be easy. I was young, naïve, and wrong. When I say wrong, I mean Ashley Judd in Dolphin Tale 2 wrong. I was right about Veterans being awesome, though, and I can honestly say that I love working with Vets. They are really awesome, and I’ve made some friends from my work here. But the part about the disability process being easy was very untrue. However, I am not a pessimist. I believe in looking at the good in life, and I try to focus on the positives. When dealing with something as complicated as VA Disability, it’s not easy to think about positives. In fact, I might say that this is one of the hardest blogs I’ve ever written. It wasn’t easy to find positives, but there are some, and that is what matters.

Full disclosure: I don’t work for the VA. I am not paid by the VA. I am not some undercover propaganda machine either. I work for a West Virginia-based law firm that focuses on Veterans Disability, Social Security, and Personal Injury. To prove that I am indeed a real boy, here is a link to my Twitter profile. It’s been active since 2011. I usually go on rants about race cars and Ashley Judd. I love JJ Watt and you’ll often see me talk about cars, product placement and food. I am real. Enjoy the list.

  1. Electronic records. When I first started working here, an electronic medical record or claim file was unheard of. In fact, we would get so many records on paper only, that I seriously considered making a fort out of them at one time. A claim file can be thousands of pages long. Imagine getting those every day by mail. And then we would have to take those files and sort them. The records were thrown to together haphazardly. Admin records would be mixed with VA medical recs, Entrance exams were thrown in with private records, and it was what most people would call a hot mess. More care and planning went into the remake of Fantastic Four than the VA used to put into these records, and that’s not saying much.
  2. Initial Application turn-around. Way back in 2011, after Instagram but before Snapchat, Initial applications for disability benefits used to take at least 12-18 months before the VA would make a decision. That process has improved in many ways. Initial applications for most Veterans are able to come back within a year. However, Veterans who apply as a part of their discharge process can get decisions back in as little as three months. Also, Veterans with fully developed claims can get their initial applications back quickly too.
  3. BVA Hearings. Another area in which the VA has improved vastly is in the BVA or Board of Veterans Appeals. Heather Vanhoose, our lead VA attorney, has witnessed this firsthand. She mentioned that she’s seen the turnaround time for BVA hearings decrease steadily over the past five years. The VA has hired more people to deal with the backlog and they’ve actually done a good job to get these hearings scheduled quicker.
  4. Public Awareness. If I were to give the VA an “A” in one area, it would be Social Media. I guess that is kind of ironic considering I work in social media too. However, maybe it’s because I do work in social media that I notice this, but it’s worth noting. First of all, every Regional Office and most VA Medical Facilities have Twitter handles. That is pretty impressive for an organization that didn’t make use of scanners until 2015. The VA also makes use of social media to have question and answer sessions, live video chats, and even behind the scenes info. It really appears as if they are making a valent effort to reach young Veterans. Their accounts are also pretty interactive. They actually take the time to answer questions.
  5. E-Benefits. The E-Benefits  sites by far one of the most helpful tools a Veteran can use. The E-Benefits sight helps Veterans sign up for benefits, gets copies of documents and even lets them know where their case is at in the process. It’s a very helpful way to keep Veterans informed. It was not always this way, though. When I started it was not very interactive, and it really didn’t do much to help a Veteran with his or her case.

Overall, I am not trying to say that this process is perfect now. In fact, it’s actually far from it. I just wanted to shed some light on a few things that the VA is doing well. Also, I understand the fact that the VA has a good Twitter account means very little to you if you’ve been waiting years for a claim to get approved. But, the VA is making some moves in the right direction.

If you feel as if you are stuck with your claim and would like to know what our firm can do fo you, call us for a free case evaluation. Our toll-free number is 1-877-526-3457. However, if you can’t talk right now, fill out this form  so that we can contact you at a better time.

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How a Conversation with a Veteran 5 Years Ago Helped Me Realize I Was in the Right Career Field

Today I am going to share the story of the moment I knew working with Veterans Disability was the right career path for me.

On Veterans Day this blog turns Five, and in March of 2017, I’ll celebrate my 6th anniversary with Jan Dils Attorneys at Law. However, before I wrote this blog Jason Watkins 061before social media was a part of my job title, and well before I knew anything about VA Disability, I was just a 27-year-old guy who was a little lost. I was finishing graduate school and working part time at a small retail outlet selling satellite dishes. In January of 2011, it was announced that the retail part of the company would be shutting down. In fact, my birthday would be the last day that I would be employed. Two months later I was working for a well-known law firm in Parkersburg, WV called Jan Dils Attorneys at Law. My new job required me to talk to Veterans and give them updates on their case. I was also supposed to screen potential new clients for representation. Learning a new job is tough, but add on top of that the entire VA disability process and I were overwhelmed, to say the least. For a while, I did not think that this was for me. I questioned a lot about my abilities at the time, and several times I thought about quitting. I liked my coworkers a lot, and the company was definitely a great place, but I thought I couldn’t do the job. However, one day, after talking to a young Veteran about becoming a client, I knew I was in the right place.

Please keep in mind that we are a law firm and I can’t give out personal or detailed information about our clients, so this may seem vague at times, but I am simply protecting the Identity of our client.

A few months after I started, I received a call from a young man asking about benefits. He was only a few months younger than me. At the time, most of the Vets I encountered were much older. Traditionally they were Vietnam Veterans who had great cases. It’s not that I didn’t care for these individuals; it was just difficult for me to relate. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to serve in Vietnam, and it’s difficult to get this generation of Veterans to really speak openly about their experiences. The young man I spoke to served in Afghanistan. I wish I knew why, but for some reason, he really opened up to me about his experience. He was a young father of many and was married to a supportive wife, but couldn’t seem to adjust to civilian life. He had been through several jobs since returning home and he could not find anything stable. Worst of all, he kept getting denied for VA disability compensation. The specific claim he was denied for that really made no sense was PTSD. This fella had a severe case of PTSD and was diagnosed and treated by a civilian doctor and by a VA doctor. Not only did the VA deny his claim for PTSD, they tried to say that he was malingering. For anyone who may not know, malingering is a fancy way of saying that the person is pretending to have symptoms. In this case, they said that the Veteran was pretending to have PTSD symptoms.

The malingering part bothered me a lot. First of all, this client served 4 tours in Afghanistan. He was in combat, and he witnessed gunfire, explosions, and the death of friends. He was obviously lost now, and he was having issues with anger, sleeping disorders, anxiety and many more of the core symptoms of PTSD. In fact, I’ll even go as far to say that his PTSD was so obvious, Ray Charles could see it. But they said he was faking.

When lead VA attorney Heather Vanhoose found out about the malingering statement, she couldn’t believe it. Heather loves all Veterans, but this case truly upset her because the VA was so blatantly wrong.

This was a tough case, but our firm was able to get the Veteran 70% on his PTSD claim, and he is connected on several other issues. He was awarded back pay to his original file date. It just goes to show that persistence pays off. We believed in this young man’s case when few others would. We got him the benefits he deserved.

Interacting with this client helped me realize that I had found my home. When he would talk, he would often get upset about how the VA would treat him. He had a distinct voice. He had a southern accent though I am not positive he ever lived in the south. I could tell there was a lot of pain in his voice. I took pride in the fact that I was able to make him laugh a few times. For a few seconds, I was able to help him forget his worries.

It’s nearly six years later and I still check up on this person from time to time. It’s interesting to see how much has changed in this period of time. He seems to be under less stress now, and I like to think that we had some small part in that.

This was the first client I truly felt a connection to, and there have been a lot more to follow. For five years I screened new clients for the firm and did intake appointments. It was great to get to know so many men and women who have done so much for this country. My current position with the firm has me working on social media and community outreach. I don’t get to know our clients as well now, but I still love what I do. Plus I still get to interact with Veterans; I just do it in the community now instead.

We’re not like other law firms. We really are passionate about what we do. I’m not alone here either. I know we’re different because our lead attorney shouts with joy when she receives a decision for a Veteran she’s worked with for years. I doubt other law firms have employees like case manager Meg, who holds back tears when she shares stories with new employees about the clients she’s helped. Most law firms don’t have non-attorney reps like Kris, who could easily be successful in any field, but he chooses VA disability.

I am so glad I was able to interact with this client. Without him, I may have gone off and done something boring, like accounting.

If you want to experience our firm for yourself, call us today for a FREE consultation. Our toll-free number is 1-877-526-3457. If you’d rather contact us after hours, fill out this form now, so that someone may contact you at a better time.

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Better Call Jan: 10 Things Veterans Need to Know About Hiring a VA Disability Attorney

When most people think of lawyers images of Matlock, Elle Woods, or even that fella from TMZ come to mind. When you are in search of an attorney to handle your VA disability claim, who are you elle woodsgoing to hire? Where do you start? Are all attorneys the same? Should I just go with a VSO? Most Veterans are faced with these questions when they first consider pursuing a disability claim. Unfortunately, there aren’t many guides out there for selecting an attorney and there are surprisingly few good options. So, what is a Veteran to do? I’ve compiled this list of 10 tips all Veterans need to know when searching for a VA disability attorney.

Before we get into the tips, you are probably wondering; do you even need an attorney? Well, as an employee of a law firm you may think that I am biased, and truth be told, I am. But I am also a man of reason, and love logic. Consider this thought though. If you’re a Vet there is a good chance you’ve been dealing with the Government for years. As you are already aware, the only thing that government organizations hate more than efficiency is simplicity. VA cases are extremely complicated. Even filling out the initial application can make a strong man weak. If you call the VA for help, you are probably going to be put on hold long enough to watch a Christopher Nolan film. So, an attorney can be a great guide through the complicated process. It’s also safe to assume that anyone who has a vested interest in your case will work harder to get you the benefits you deserve. So, and Attorney is much better than fighting alone. Here are the things you need to know before you search for the person to represent you.

  1. 089This isn’t like most other types of law. VA disability is a lot like Lady Gaga, complicated. The closest thing it resembles is Social Security Disability, and those two are as different as the Marines and the Air Force. In VA Disability, you are not suing anyone, you are not going to bring in surprise witnesses, and you’re not going to be seen in front of a jury. The reason why there aren’t hit shows on TV about VA Disability law firms is that it’s actually quite boring…and of course complicated. There is a lot filing, gathering evidence and waiting. While it can be quite frustrating for Veterans, keep in mind that you’re not in trouble for anything and it will seem completely different once you’ve started the process.
  2. An Attorney, a VSO, and even Captain America can’t speed up your claim. Some people may make promises that they can speed your claim up, but they are wrong. There are only two ways to speed up a VA disability claim. One would be if you’re terminally ill, and the other would be if you’re facing an economic hardship. If I’m honest, the latter does not happen very often. Further, no matter what you may hear from certain organizations, it’s still a very long wait.
  3. Most Veterans haven’t hired an attorney before. A lot of the Veterans we talk to now are quite young. In fact, recently I talked to a fella who was born in 1995. That’s the same year that Toy Story came out. So they’re not likely to have a lot of experience dealing with the legal process. Granted, you don’t have to be a millennial to be unfamiliar with lawyers. The biggest thing we see from this fact is a lot of Veterans, regardless of age, have communication apprehension when dealing with a law firm. It’s kind of like when you have to the doctor. We are aware of this and we work hard to make our firm very approachable. We let you get to know us online, we have friendly case managers to answer your questions, we give books out that explain the process, and our firm even has a really cool employee who writes amazing blogs on practically every VA subject.
  4. What’s it going to cost? Attorney fees can be scary, especially if you consider how much a criminal defense attorney charges, or how much it can cost to get a divorce. Once again though, VA Disability attorneys are different. Most of them work on a contingency fee, meaning that you don’t pay any cost up front, and only pay a percentage of your back pay if you are approved. It is important to question an attorney about any additional fees besides the back pay. A lot of Veterans come to us from other law firms. We have seen a wide variety of additional fees from other law firms. This includes travel expenses, postage, and even the cost of the food they ate when they went to a hearing. Our firm does not charge those types of fees, but others do. The only thing we charge in addition to your attorney fees are costs associated with charges for medical records or Independent medical exams. Essentially it’s a reimbursement. Regardless of who you go with, make sure you are aware of all of their fees.
  5. A lot of the information about your case comes from one big file. From the time you join the military, and until many years after you pass away, there are paper files about you from the military and the VA. This includes entrance exams, admin records, VA health records, disability filings, and much, much more about you in this file. It’s commonly referred to as a Claim File. A claim file, or c-file as it is commonly known, is one of the most important aspects of your case. This will tell us a majority of the information we need to know about your claim. We can see if you were physically injured in service, if you had any behavioral issues, and even if you served in combat.
  6. You may have to go to a hearing or two. But don’t worry, they are very informal. If your claim is denied you may have to go to a hearing down the road. There are actually three separate types of hearings in a VA disability claim. These include a Decision Review Officer Hearing, a Board of Veterans appeals hearing, and finally, the rarest of them all, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. These are also often called DRO, BVA, and CAVC.
    1. A DRO hearing is the most informal of all of the hearings, and it comes first. Essentially in this hearing your attorney will represent you in front of a Decision Review Officer. That is it. There is no jury, no judge, and no objections. They are very relaxed.
    2. The second hearing is the BVA Hearing. It is more formal and traditionally follows a denial by a DRO. The BVA is a traveling board who call Washington D.C. home. However these hearings can be done in person in Washington, but most elect not to travel. In some circumstances, a BVA hearing is completed via video. The end result of a BVA hearing will come in one of the following ways: An approval, which is good, a denial which is bad, or a remand, which is somewhere, in the middle. Remands go back to the Regional Office for further evaluation.
    3. If you are denied at the BVA, your last hope is CAVC. (Sometimes we call it COVA for reasons that are not imperative to this blog.) The hearing you have at the CAVC is the most formal and few Vets actually go that far. Fun Fact, VAVC is not a part of the Department of Veterans Affairs. According to the CAVC website, The Court’s review of Board decisions is based on the record before the agency and arguments of the parties, which are presented in a written brief, with oral argument generally held only in cases presenting new legal issues. In other words, something has to be really wrong with your claim to get that far. It’s rare for our firm to take a case to CAVC because we are very thorough with our reviews.
  7. You’re going to get frustrated, and probably more than once. The biggest thing most Veterans aren’t aware of prior to pursuing a VA disability claim is how mentally taxing they can be. Marge hairFrustration is inevitable with a VA disability claim. The frustration comes in many different forms too. Sometimes it will be a result of the VA denying you on a claim in which it’s obvious you should be connected, and other times it’s simply frustration at the timeline. You will be evaluated by the VA for your claims multiple times too. Many Veterans have told me horror stories about evaluations with VA doctors that last fewer than three minutes. That’s barely the length of a good Guns and Roses song.
  8. You have to get treatment. I hate going to the doctor. I hate taking medication. I hate sitting in waiting rooms for 20 minutes just to talk to a doctor for 5 minutes. But, in order to stay healthy, a visit to the doctor every few months is imperative. The same can be said for VA disability compensation too. Except it’s even more important with the VA. The VA uses medical records to determine the severity of your case. Often the VA will rate you lower than you should be for a condition. Our firm can use your medical records to argue against the VA.
  9. You can’t take no for an answer. Yes, you will get mad at some point when dealing with the VA, but you can’t give up. We’ve established that it’s a long wait, and that it’s frustrated, but too many Veterans give up because the system failed them. Our firm won’t let you give up either. I’ve seen approvals for Veterans who had to wait more than ten years for an approval and they were mighty happy when they were approved. I’ve also seen our Lead VA Attorney Heather Vanhoose mount a huge argument against the VA when they tried to say one of clients was malingering with his PTSD claim. It took a while, but that client is now receiving benefits at 100%. You will want to give up, but that isn’t in the vocabulary of most Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, or Coast Guardsmen.
  10. Maggie and Jake are both actors, but one is better than the other. Comment below if you know who I am talking about. In other words, lots of law firms handle VA disability claims, but they areinternet not equal. Some are better than others. Do your research. The best way to determine if a law firm is good at what they do is via their online presence. Do they have a lot of real google reviews? Are there any client testimonials? Do they offer information to the public free of charge? Are they involved in their community? These are just some ways to determine if the attorney you’re pursuing is any good at what they do. Never hesitate to ask around too.

By now you should have some understanding of what it’s like to hire an attorney for a VA disability claim. However, if you need more information, just give us a call. We’ll be happy to answer your questions. If we can’t help you we’ll even tell you where to go to get the help you need. Fill out this form for a free consultation, or give me a call today. 1-877-526-3457.

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Smoke and Mirrors; How the VA is Spinning the Backlog

As I get older I’ve noticed that I’m becoming more aware of the way people and organizations try to spin things. Perhaps I’m just becoming more jaded as I approach the third year of my “flirty thirties.” For instance, when I am at a hockey game and they show some fella propose to his girlfriend on the jumbo Tron, I immediately boo them. I mean, that’s not romantic, that’s just a ploy to get attention. This is especially true because I am a Columbus Blue Jackets fan. They’ve only made the playoffs twice. Do you really want to tell your kids that their father asked you to marry him at the arena of the worst hockey team ever in the NHL?

There is a lot of smoke and mirrors out there in the world today. This is especially true when it comes to the VA Disability Backlog. 2016 will mark my fifth year working with VA disability. Claims have been backlogged since I started in 2011. So, the news reports state that backlog is dwindling, but what does that really mean?

Lohan smokingTo better understand this, let’s first examine what a backlogged claim really is in the mind of the VA. They consider a claim backlogged if it is waiting for more than 125 days for a decision.  That is the equivalent to four months or so. Here in the real world I know that it really still takes about 8-12 months to get a decision, appeal, or really any other type of decision, back from the VA. Here is where the smoke and mirrors come into play. And trust me, the VA has more smoke and mirrors than Lindsay Lohan’s apartment after her father has upset her again.

So, these backlog numbers you hear about going down on the news are quite deceptive. Did you know that this number only pertains to new applications, not the claims that are on appeal? So, what the VA is saying is that they use to have over 600,000 claims backlogged and now that number is 73,000. It’s a miracle and the VA has done such a great job. But have they? First of all, 73,000 Veterans who have not received an initial decision yet is still pretty bad. Let’s put that in perspective. In West WVUVirginia, most of us are fans of the West Virginia University Mountaineers. This excludes people in Huntington who went to Marshall or the few individuals who think Matthew McConaughey is a good actor. The Mountaineers play football at Milan Puskar Stadium. This stadium seats 60,000 people. That is quite a lot of individuals. However, you could not seat every Veteran who has a new claim for benefits backlogged in that stadium.

The VA magic show continues because they just make a decision on these claims. They aren’t necessarily approving benefits. They can deny a Veteran service connection on the initial application and that claim then goes away from their queue. So, they can say that the backlog is being decreased, but it does not mean Veterans are getting their benefits.

Here is a staggering fact…there are currently 425,480 VA disability claims on appeal.  That’s like 6 mediocre football team stadiums.  So, if there are 425,000 claims on appeal, and 73,000 backlogged at the initial level, doesn’t that mean that nearly 500,000 claims are pending? Well, the VA won’t advertise that. It’s much more sensational to say that most of the backlogged claims are gone.

blog photos 046Here is the truth about why we aren’t fans of this spin. We represent Veterans for their disability cases. A lot of people see these news stories about the backlog being diminished, and they get upset that their claim is still pending. They assume something is wrong, or that the person representing them is purposely dragging their case out. This is simply not the truth. But, because the VA came under more fire then General Motors in the past few years, they are doing a lot to make themselves look good. Most Veterans simply aren’t aware that these reduced backlog numbers only apply to new applicants.

My message for Veterans is simple. There is a pretty good chance that your claim is still going to take a long time. If you are about to face discharge, try to take part in a program called Benefits Delivery at Discharge. It’s a program that allows individuals approaching discharge to get a decision back quickly. You can read more about that here. If you have been discharged already, apply for all of your claims at once, submit evidence early, and be sure to get regular treatment. Of course, it never hurts to hire an attorney. Despite what some people may want you to believe, we actually want to get your claim approved as quickly as possible. While an attorney can’t speed up your case, there is a lot they can do to help you get approved. I’d be happy to tell you all about it too. Just give me a call for a free consultation. You can reach me toll free here: 1-877-526-3457. Or, fill out this form so I can call you later.

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Nexus Letters and Your VA Disability Claim

If you’re filing a VA Disability claim, there are few things that you must have in order to get service connected for a disability. One of the most important aspects of qualifying for VA disability is that you must have served in the military. I often use humor in my blogs, but I’ve seriously had people ask me if they can qualify for VA disability if they never served. The answer is no. If you did serve, you will need a proper discharge, and of course, medical treatment. Anyone who has even glanced at this blog before will tell you that medical treatment is one of the most important parts of a VA disability claim. Today though, we are going to discuss one specific aspect of medical treatment; the nexus letter.

A few things come to mind when I hear the term “nexus letter.” First of all, it sounds a lot fancier than it actually is, and two, how I have I possibly waited this long to write about nexus letters? Though I may act like photos 4 054it often, I am not perfect, so it’s possible for me to forget to write about a topic for several years. But also, I don’t deal with nexus letters frequently because I mostly interact with Veterans when they are in the beginning stages of their claims. Nexus letters usually come in later in the process.

So, the first question one might be led to ask is “What is a nexus letter?” It is simply a written statement from a medical professional that states that your current medical condition is a result of your time in service. In other words, the medical professional is arguing that, based on their medical opinion, your current injury is impacting your life because of the time you spent in service.

Before I mentioned that I don’t often encounter Veterans with nexus letters because I interact with Veterans who are new to process or new to our firm. That does not mean that you can’t submit a nexus letter early on. In fact, some would argue that submitting a nexus letter early in the process is a positive. This is especially true for Veterans who have limited medical treatment to back up his or her claim. For example, we interact with Veterans who were Airborne Rangers quite often. All Vets are tough, but these individuals are the toughest of the tough. They will often avoid medical treatment because of their training. (Granted, that is true of most Veterans I meet.) So, they aren’t likely to have a long history of medical evidence. However, if an individual has issues with their knees, back and feet, it would be easy for a doctor to write a nexus letter for them if they had a lot of jumps in service. Personally, the only time I’ve ever jumped out of a plane is when it taxied at DFW and we had been delayed for five hours. Even then it was more like a leap onto the terminal. Many Veterans have described the impact jumps have on them in service, and it is surprising anyone would do it more than once. If you had 30 jumps in service, then discharged and started working at a desk job, it would be difficult for a doctor to argue that your joint issues didn’t come from service. This is of course assuming you did not have a car wreck after service or took up kickboxing as a hobby.

Nexus letters are also important if you are denied because of the result of a C&P exam. I always try to be upfront with my readers, and I also try not to bash the VA in my blogs. The latter is becoming increasingly difficult. However, while many C&P examiners are well qualified individuals who are dedicated to their field, we often see reports that don’t support a Veteran’s claim. Let’s just say that if C&P reports were compared to mobile phones, they wouldn’t be iPhones, or Android devices, they’d likely be Blackberry phones instead. A nexus letter can go a long way to negate what a C&P examiner states in their report. Think of it as second opinion in this case.

grey's giphyI don’t personally know any doctors. In fact, most of my knowledge of them is a result of watching Grey’s Anatomy or my time with the firm. This has led me to two conclusions: doctors will disobey the Hippocratic Oath to prove their love, and they are often hesitant to write that one thing is a direct result of another. Seriously though, you might have a difficult time finding a medical professional that will state that your medical condition is a result of your time in service. This is especially true if you have not treated with them for a while. If this is the case, you might see language like: “your injury is at least as likely as not” a result of your time in service. In circumstances like this, it’s important to consult with an attorney or service officer to determine your best course of action.

While a good nexus letter can help your case, it’s no guarantee of approval. That is why I stress medical treatment as a whole for your VA disability case. Going to the gym once isn’t going to make me look like Jake Gyllenhaal, and seeing a doctor once won’t likely make a strong argument for a VA disability.

If you liked what I had to say today, feel free to give me a call to discuss your case. Our toll free number is 1-877-526-3457. If you’re not free to talk now, fill out this form to schedule an appointment at a later time.

 

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