TIP: The claims process doesn’t need to be a hassle. Here is what you can do to help yourself and VA:
1. Communicate, communicate, communicate
2. Appoint a representative. While there are attorneys who will represent you for a fee, it is rarely necessary to pay to have your claim processed efficiently and successfully. National Service Organizations such as the Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America, as well as State Departments of Veterans Affairs or Veterans Commissions and County Veteran Service Officers can give excellent assistance and its free. Call your local regional office to see what organizations are available at that office.
3. Consider what you want to claim. Many Servicemembers and veterans have been told they should go through their service medical records and claim everything they have ever had or been treated for. While you can do that, it is likely to significantly increase your frustration level, result in unnecessary examinations, and slow the process without getting added benefits. You should not claim acute disabilities or illnesses you had in service unless they left a residual. For example, if you got the flu in service and got over it, the claim will be denied. On the other hand if you broke your leg and recovered from it you should claim that because the fracture, if found on x-ray, can be service connected. While it might only warrant a zero percent evaluation now, if you develop arthritis at the site later, you are covered. Don’t claim things like personality disorders, baldness, the fact that you wear glasses, or similar kinds of things because they are considered “constitutional or developmental abnormalities” that you would have gotten whether or not you were in service. The law doesn’t permit payment for these. Don’t claim lab results like hematuria (blood in the urine) or high cholesterol. We don’t pay for those either. On the other hand, you should claim pseudofolliculitis barbae (a skin condition that affects some black people).
4. If private providers have treated you, get the records and send them to us. While the application you fill out does offer the opportunity to sign a release and we will request the records for you, we cannot compel providers to send us records nor can we pay for them. It is my experience that many times–maybe even most–when VA sends a release a private provider, the provider ignores the request. If the provider does respond, many times they will ask that we pay them in advance for the records. In either case, we will have to write to you and tell you that if you want the records considered you will have to get them and send them. In the worse case this can add two to three months to the process.
5. Show up for your examinations.
6. The first thing you will get from VA once you file your claim is a lengthy letter commonly referred to as a “VCAA letter.” This is a letter required by the law that tells you what we will do, what you will be expected to do, and in very general terms tell you how we will decide. The letter may also include specific requests from your local regional office for information. Read it carefully for specific requests for information from us. Finally, the letter offers the option of completing an attachment telling us you have no more information. If that is the case, complete the form and return it immediately. If you don’t and you have no more information, we will wait for 30 days before proceeding for no good reason. Even if, during the course of working the claim you do get additional information you can always submit it when you get it.
7. When you get your decision, read it carefully. It will have attached to it the text of the actual rating decision explaining why we decided what we did. If you think our decision didn’t consider something, didn’t cover a topic, or is wrong, call your representative right away. If we have made a mistake, we would rather just fix it now than get involved in a lengthy appeal that isn’t terribly satisfying for you or VA.
Final Note: VA exists to serve those who served and their survivors. I have worked for VA for over 36 years and the overwhelming majority of people who work for VA are committed to the mission. If we are not clear or you think we have made a mistake, let us know so we can both fix it, and provide a learning opportunity for our staff to serve other Veterans better.