VA modifies disability application process, concerning advocates

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Changes to VA application process criticized

New rules from the Department of Veterans Affairs went into effect March 25, designed to streamline the filing process for veterans’ disability benefits. Previously, veterans seeking disability benefits had the option of filing so-called informal claims, such as by sending a letter to the VA. In those circumstances, the VA would respond by sending a letter to the applicant, which included a formal application for benefits.

If the application was approved, the veteran would be entitled to compensation beginning from the time of the filing of the informal claim. This is how nearly half of all claims are filed.

Under the new system, veterans who send so-called informal claims will receive a rejection letter and instructions on how to properly file a claim, but not a formal application, according to Stars and Stripes. Under the new process, veterans are entitled to benefits from the time they file the new four-page application.

In addition, the VA, upon receiving a benefit application, will only provide benefits for injuries specifically pleaded in the complaint. So for example, if a veteran applies for benefits for PTSD, but fails to mention she lost her legs, the VA will only process the claim for PTSD, regardless of the medical evidence presented.

“This change will help VA provide faster and more accurate decisions to our Veterans, their families and survivors,” said Allison A. Hickey, under secretary for benefits with the VA, in a news release. “Standard forms are essential to better serve Veterans, build more efficiency into VA’s processes and bring us in line with other government agencies such as the Social Security Administration.”

Many veterans groups, however, strongly oppose the new regulations.

Veterans for Common Sense believes the new rules will deter veterans from filing claims, as well as make it more difficult for veterans to file claims who lack internet access or access to filing claims.

“We believe the most immediate response to the new regulation will be a sharp reduction in claims filed—potentially hundreds of thousands,” Glenn Bergmann, partner at Bergmann & Moore, said in a news release. “The changes also place the burden on the veterans, who don’t understand the intricacies of beneficiary law.”

On May 20, five veterans groups sued the VA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. They believe the rules will have a particularly negative impact on elderly and low-income veterans, who lack the means to file formal applications.

“We are fighting a legal battle today on behalf of our country’s injured and disabled veterans,” Ron Abrams, an attorney and joint executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, in a news release. “Our nation’s promise to care for its injured and disabled veterans is being diluted by this new VA rule.”

The lawsuit was filed by the NVLSP, the American Legion, AMVETS, the Military Order of the Purple Heart and the Vietnam Veterans of America. They are receiving legal support from attorneys from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP.