There is that point in almost every conversation with a veteran or their family when they say “boy, I wish I’d known that at the time I (he/she) left service.” It’s difficult and occasionally heartbreaking to have to explain to a veteran that if they had filed a claim within an earlier time period, submitted certain evidence or asked for benefits a different way they might now be better off. While online information has helped in recent years, even the internet-savvy can find themselves overwhelmed with the sheer volume of regulations, exceptions to benefits and procedural hoops that make up the VA claims process.
While I cannot begin to summarize the breadth of VA law and benefits here, I offer a few tips for those with open claims or anyone planning to file a claim for compensation with the VA.
1) File all related claims. It’s easy to file a claim on an injury or disease and not think about secondary conditions. Take a veteran with diabetes, the claim for diabetes mellitus is only one piece of the larger puzzle. Diabetics often have peripheral neuropathy of the hands and feet as well as erectile dysfunction, retinopathy and in serious cases nephropathy. Each of these is a separately ratable condition secondary to the diabetes and should be articulated as such.
2) Treat for your service-incurred medical conditions. One prong of three in proving a claim for VA compensation is showing you actually have the medical condition claimed. Silly as that sounds, the VA doesn’t care if you had this condition in the past – the issue is now! So make sure you can document your condition through current treatment records.
3) Do the VA’s job for them! Yes, you are entitled to have the VA develop your claim for you. That said, help them help you. Don’t wait on them to order records, obtain medical reports and otherwise develop your claim. You know your claim and are uniquely qualified to provide the Regional Office the evidence needed to substantiate your claim. There is certainly no obligation to do this, but it can help significantly.
4) Know the current law on your issues. VA laws and regulations change. Take veteran’s exposed to chemicals at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. A few years ago those veterans were only entitled to medical treatment, today there are eight conditions presumptively caused by exposure to chemicals at Camp Lejeune. VA regulations continue to develop – watch for changes! Take heart, if your issue isn’t one the VA currently acknowledges, stay informed and vigilant to make sure you take advantage of any subsequent favorable change.
5) Acknowledge that you will lose the occasional battle in order to win the campaign. You have lived with this physical or mental condition and know exactly how it started in the service but the VA often takes some convincing. While they may ultimately agree, it may take more than one go round to bring them around to the evidence in the file and your position. Be vigilant, polite and understand that while it will often feel extremely personal to you, your file is one of many for VA personnel and they often don’t have the benefit of personally understanding your issues.
6) APPEAL. APPEAL. APPEAL. Follow up! Just because the VA “denies” your claims doesn’t mean they are always correct. Often there are multiple intertwined issues within each claim and while the VA might be correct about one legal theory they may fail to address others on which you may prevail. Even when a decision is favorable there are often more benefits to be obtained or past benefits they haven’t awarded that go unaddressed.
7) Be patient. The hardest single thing about the VA is the mind-bending wait and repeated trips up and down within the appeal process. Nothing in the VA world happens even reasonably promptly. Take on the challenge of your claim as a campaign and use these few tips to plan for victory at the end!