Veterans who apply for disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have a steep road to climb. Obtaining documentation and proving that a disability is service-connected are difficult enough. However, the VA has made matters worse by requiring that veterans use standardized forms when applying for disability benefits or appealing negative decisions.
These changes become effective on March 24, 2015. What are the regulatory changes and how will they affect disabled vets seeking benefits?
Recently Implemented Changes in the Filing Process
The big changes, which were published in the Federal Register, are:
· A requirement that veterans use specific forms when applying for VA disability and other benefits administered by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), thereby eliminating the "informal" claims process, which previously allowed any form of written communication or, in certain circumstances, medical records, to qualify as an effective date for an application's filing.
· Veterans who disagree with the VBA ruling on their claims and intend to file appeals may be required under certain circumstances to use a standardized form to notify the VA of their disagreement with a ruling or determination.
Why the VA Made the Changes
According to the VA, the benefits of these changes outweigh the costs. According to the language published in the Federal Register, the primary benefit will be a reduction in the time required to process claims, resulting in faster benefit payments for claimants. Although the VA acknowledges that these changes will require at least half of the veterans who file claims - and those who help them - to learn the new forms and requirements, the agency is promoting the changes in the belief that faster processing times will outweigh the burden the new procedures may cause veterans.
The VA also points to public savings as one of the benefits of the new regulations. Because the VA believes the changes will speed up the development and processing of claims, it also anticipates that the overhead costs of administering the VBA will decrease.
Response From Veterans Groups to the Changes
As required by law, the process of changing the filing procedures included a comment period. Interested individuals and organizations were invited to file comments about the proposed changes before they became official. Comments came from the following veterans organizations:
· Center for Elder Veterans Rights
· County Veteran Service Officer Association of Wisconsin
· Veteran Warriors
· New York State Division of Veterans Affairs
· Wounded Warrior Project
· Disabled American Veterans
· National Veterans Legal Services Program and the Military Order of the Purple Heart (jointly submitted)
· American Legion
· Veterans for Common Sense
· Veterans Justice Group, LLC
· Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States
· Military Officers Association of America
· Vietnam Veterans of America
· National Organization of Veterans Advocates
· Paralyzed Veterans of America
· State of Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs
Among the comments submitted were these:
· Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW): Draconian and heavy-handed, disadvantaging homeless and poor veterans who do not have access to computers
· American Legion: A seismic change that will poison the VA disability system
Although the VA made minor changes in the language of the regulations as a result of comments, it did not change the fundamental requirement that vets applying for benefits use standardized forms.
Why Veterans Groups Oppose the VA Rule Changes
One of the main reasons veterans groups have not responded positively to the change is that it could reduce the size of the retroactive disability benefit a veteran receives. Prior to the changes, a vet could indicate his or her intent to file a claim informally - a letter or email would do. And in certain circumstances, an examination or hospitalization report qualified as an informal claim for benefits. When the veteran was finally awarded benefits, retroactive benefits were calculated based on the date of the medical report or the initial communication from the veteran expressing a desire to file a claim. Under the new rules, the VA will no longer recognize these types of informal claims, and veterans must notify the VA of their intent to file using a standardized form.
Veterans organizations that oppose the change have responded in different ways. The American Legion supports a House bill that would require the VA to reinstate the informal notification and claims system. The group Paralyzed Veterans of America said that the rule change goes against the pro-claimant tradition established under President Lincoln in the 19th century. According to the group, the change shifts the burden to make the claims process better, easier and faster from the VA to the veteran.
In general, veterans groups do not oppose VA process changes that will shorten the time it takes for vets to receive decisions about their claims and appeals. However, they do oppose changes such as these that put some veterans at a disadvantage and are likely to reduce retroactive benefits.