Anyone who was injured or disabled on active duty or similar military service can claim for disability compensation. However, navigating through the claims process with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can seem like a daunting task, though it does not have to be. Because the VA is so often associated with scandals, long wait times, and ousted leaders, its history has been blemished to the point that many veterans feel cynical about their chances for receiving help and benefits. Veterans with legitimate and service-connected disabilities may opt to avoid the claims process, and this is a shame as they need and deserve the disability compensation offered by the VA. Rather than chalking it up to a failed system and throwing in the towel, veterans can and should act as their own best advocates and use the system to their advantage. If you are a veteran with a service-connected disability, we can take you through the steps of applying for disability benefits, with proven tips and tricks to ensure your claim is approved.
An Overview of the VA Disability Benefits Program
The current Department of Veterans Affairs is part of a history of veterans benefits dating back several centuries; the United States has one of the most developed and comprehensive benefits programs for veterans of any country in the world. Throughout its history, the program has changed and evolved into the current VA, which gained cabinet-level department status in 1989. The VA provides not only disability benefits but also assists veterans with housing, education, and more.
Disabilities benefits are a major focus for veterans—and the VA—because of the many service-connected health issues and injuries that are associated with long-term disability after military duty. From Vietnam-era exposure to Agent Orange to the effects of PTSD on veterans serving in many wars, these health issues take a toll on veterans for the rest of their lives.
In the disabilities claims process, a veteran who has been on active duty receives a rating, which determines the amount of monthly compensation available. A 100% disability rating can result in more than $3,000 per month paid to disabled veterans. Many injuries or conditions caused (or worsened by) service are covered by the VA disabilities program. Some common examples include back and neck pain, heart disease and hypertension, sleep disorders, traumatic brain injuries, and PTSD (along with depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders). The key to receiving full benefits lies in evidence of these conditions, which needs to be thoroughly documented. This can be done by the veteran or the information can be sought out by the VA during the claims process (the former may yield a better result than the latter and we will discuss that in more detail later in the article).
Additionally, it is important to note that VA disability benefits eligibility is also tied to these stipulations.
- Dishonorably discharged veterans are NOT eligible for VA disability benefits.
- In order to be eligible veterans must have been considered active-duty.
- Eligibility is also based on mental or physical impairments that are caused or worsened by service in the military.
- Each branch of the military is eligible for veteran’s disability benefits (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Navy, Marines).
- If National Guard/Reservists were activated by the Federal government, they may be eligible for veteran’s disability benefits as well.
How to Apply for VA Disability Benefits
For veterans wishing to claim disability benefits, there are a number of different paths that can be taken, which accommodate everyone from the “tech savvy” to those without access to computers. VA benefit claims may be filed
- Online. Veterans may use the Veterans Online Application process through the VA website in order to file for disability.
- By Regular Mail. The Application for Veterans Compensation and/or Pension, which can be printed from the VA website, can be sent to the local VA office.
- By Telephone. Veterans may call 800-827-1000 to start the process of filing a disability claim by phone. For hearing-impaired veterans, the TDD line is 800-829-4833. And for veterans calling from outside of the United States, the number is 412-395-6272.
- In Person. Visit the local VA office to file the claim in person.
All of the online forms may be accessed here.
When starting this process, veterans should consider whether they will need assistance, whether that means hiring a lawyer or seeking the free support offered by many veteran groups. The VA will typically suggest that veterans do not need a lawyer; however, it may benefit you to have an experienced veterans issues lawyer to guide you through this process (and, in the case that your claim is not approved at 100%, to help you appeal). There are many veterans groups who provide assistance and support with disability claims (and other needs). Your state’s veteran’s office or a group such as Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion may be great places to start. They have appointed representatives who have experience with such claims and may be able to help you navigate these waters (providing moral support as well!) The VA has a handy link to all of the state offices available on its website.
Before you start the application process, be sure you have gathered all of the evidence. In other words, keep up a paper trail of all correspondence with doctors (whether they are VA physicians or private practice doctors) related to your service-connected condition.
I Submitted My Claim: What Happens Next?
Waiting is the hard part and this is certainly true when it comes to VA claims! This is an organization that has been historically backlogged, so you do not want to delay when it comes to getting this process started, either during or immediately after your service, because it may take some time to get an answer. It should be noted that you CAN and still file if the condition appears well after service ended, because some health issues may not surface for months or even years. And there is no limit on filing time.
Once the VA has received your disability claim, they will also gather evidence to inform their decision. Your case is subject to a ratings process, with a 100% rating resulting in the highest pay.
Here’s how the VA explains its calculations: “The amount of basic benefit paid ranges, depending on how disabled you are. VA makes a determination about the severity of your disability based on the evidence you submit as part of your claim, or that VA obtains from your military records. VA rates disability from 0% to 100% in 10% increments (e.g. 10%, 20%, 30% etc.).” (https://www.benefits.va.gov/compensation/rates-index.asp)
While there is no hard and fast rule to how long it takes to get an answer, because each claim is different, from the complexity of the disabilities to the number of them claimed, some recent research suggests the average Fully Developed Claim (FDC) takes around 117 days to receive an answer from the VA.
However, you can track the status of the claim by registering at ebenefits.va.gov. Having the ability to see your claim move through the process may offer some peace of mind as you wait!
What are Fully Developed Claims and Decision Ready Claims?
In 2010, the VA introduced a way to “fast-track” claims that are called “Fully Developed Claims.” In these cases, the onus is on the veteran (or those assisting) to provide all of the necessary documentation and evidence to support the disability claim. The idea is that this cuts down on the time the VA has to spend gathering evidence, which in turn should speed up the decision time. In 2017, the VA took this fast rack idea a step further with “Decision Ready Claims,” which require the assistance of a veterans assistance organization, but come with a fantastic benefit to veterans: decisions in 30 days or less!
There are two ways to approach this fast-track claim, either WITH all of your needed evidence ready to submit, OR you can send the form to get started and provide the evidence later.
Either way, the onus remains on the veteran to provide the evidence, versus the “standard” and much longer procedure where the VA collects it on the veteran’s behalf.
If you choose to fast-track your disability claim, you will fill out a VA Form 21 – 526EZ. You will need a PDF reader on your computer to fill it out electronically, or you can print it out and fill it in by hand. If you are unable to access a computer with a printer, you can call 800-827-1000 to request that the form be mailed to you or you can request a copy at a local VA facility.
If you intend to submit all of your documentation and evidence along with this form you will also submit a “Fully Developed Claim Certification.” You will skip this step if you intend to submit the evidence later. Ideally, you have all of the documentation needed at this stage to make it a Fully Developed Claim though, in some cases, it may benefit a veteran to simply get the ball rolling and then follow up with additional documentation.
One reason why it may be wise to engage a lawyer or some other advisor in this process is that the documentation should be carefully reviewed to ensure there are no holes. What’s more, it is important to note that if the VA determines other unprovided records exist that are relevant to your claim, it will then be treated to the standard process and not fast-tracked.
The VA will provide a medical examination for you if it is determined this is needed in order to make a decision on your disability claim.
Other Tips for the Claims Process
- Save everything! Make a copy of absolutely every document and form submitted to the VA, and send everything via registered mail. Records can and do get lost, and you want to keep your own paper trail should anything come into question later.
- Add Buddy Statements! In addition to the medical documentation you provide as evidence for your disability claim, consider submitting “buddy statements.” These statements from individuals who served alongside you may bolster your claim, especially where evidence is lacking about an event that caused injury.
- Make Connections! Before submitting your claim, give careful thought and consideration to any conditions that may stem from service-related conditions. For example, can your physician help you draw a connection between service-connected PTSD and a heart condition that appeared later?
If the Claim Rating was Low…What Next?
Once the waiting period is over and you receive the decision and rating from the VA, you can appeal the decision if you want to try for a higher rating. It is possible that you can present stronger evidence and build a better case for a higher rating. If in your initial claim you did not seek the advice and guidance of a lawyer and/or a veteran’s assistance organization, the appeal may be the time to do this. You may need a second set of eyes to figure out “what went wrong” the first time and to help you bolster your claim.
While there is no time limit to file an original claim, an appeal is much more time sensitive. It must be done within one year of the date of your VA decision later, so it is important to act swiftly.
The form to use in the appeal is called the “Statement in Support of Claim” and can also be found on the VA website. This is effectively your “Notice of Disagreement” (NOD), informing the VA that you disagree with either the denial of benefits, the low rating applied to benefits, or the date in which benefits take effect.
You will be given a choice between a decision review officer (DRO) or an appeal to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA). If the decision is not reversed at those levels, you may move on to an appeal with the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. At this point, you should definitely be using a lawyer!
With solid documentation and evidence for your VA disability claim, it is unlikely you would need to go into this kind of appeals process.