By Catherine Cornell, Attorney – The Veterans Practice, Ltd.
Let’s take things back to basics: what makes a good VA disability compensation claim? VA disability is like worker’s compensation for veterans. When hurt on active duty, veterans can get VA compensation, just as a civilian worker could get worker’s compensation if hurt on the job.
This sounds simple, but the process can be trickier than you might think.
If not handled correctly from the outset, a compensation claim could be denied, possibly leaving the veteran mired in the appeals process for years. Yes, that’s right. Years.
The following tips can help veterans avoid the delay and frustration of a denial and have a better chance of obtaining VA benefits from the outset.
- Understand what’s required for the claim. Basically, VA compensation requires the veteran to show he has the condition he is claiming, usually through a doctor’s diagnosis. The veteran must also prove an in-service incident or injury caused the condition or that it showed up for the first time in service. That’s usually done with the help of a medical professional. Finally, in most cases the veteran needs to prove the incident, injury, or the manifestation of the condition actually occurred by using service records, buddy statements, newspaper articles or other proof. Other VA benefits, such as unemployability, have different requirements. There can also be other proof required depending on the time period and location of service. Veterans should carefully research what’s needed for a specific benefit, or get help from a veterans service officer. Many of those officers can be found in each state’s VA regional office.
- Don’t claim un-winnable conditions. After veterans nail down requirements for specific claims, they may realize a certain condition is not worth claiming. For example, a back injury from a car accident after service will not lead to VA compensation. Veterans should save time and possible frustration by not claiming disabilities that are clearly not service connected.
- Be proactive. The VA has a duty to assist veterans in obtaining information that might establish compensation claims. However, the reality is that the VA is overwhelmed, so it’s in the veteran’s best interests to gather as much evidence as possible for the claim herself.
- Use the correct forms. For example, the form for a new claim is different than the one needed to appeal a claim that was denied. The same goes for a veteran seeking unemployability benefits. The VA has forms for almost everything and they can generally be found on the Internet. If the correct form isn’t used, a claim can be delayed or rejected.
- Get military records. If a veteran doesn’t already have a complete copy of his Official Military Personnel File, he should request it, usually from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. The military file might contain helpful evidence to prove claims. Again, the VA has a duty to help obtain records to establish claims, but the veteran is best served by taking an active role in this process.
- Send in evidence with the claim. After a veteran gathers all the evidence and information possible, it should be sent in with the claim. Helpful evidence may include: service and medical records; witness statements; private doctor statements; and any additional information or documentation that might help the VA make a favorable decision faster.
- Show up to VA exams. If the claim has merit, the VA will likely schedule a Compensation and Pension exam. That’s when a VA examiner meets with the veteran and renders an opinion on the likelihood that the claimed condition did stem from service, and the degree to which the condition is disabling. If a veteran doesn’t show up for the exam without re-scheduling it, the VA may deny the claim.
- Know what the VA exam is about. Often veterans submit claims for many conditions but are then scheduled for just one exam. Don’t go in blind. Contact the VA to ask what the exam will cover. That way the veteran can be prepared to explain the condition and how it resulted from service.
- Don’t miss deadlines or fail to respond. After getting a claim, the VA might send additional forms for the veteran to fill out or ask for clarification of a claim and set a deadline to respond. If a veteran lets these forms go or misses a deadline the VA might issue a denial.
- Don’t give up. The VA process can be wildly confusing and frustrating. Despite best efforts to send in correct forms and supportive evidence, compensation claims are often still denied. Veterans shouldn’t be afraid to seek help from knowledgeable people if necessary and, above all, shouldn’t give up on the benefits they deserve.