For as long as I can remember – as a veteran and as an advocate representing veterans – there has been a backlog in the VA claims process.
General Shinseki said he would “end the backlog in 2010”. Fail.
Then they promised to end it in 2012. Fail.
The DOD loaned personnel to the VA to help end the backlog in 2013. Fail.
In 2015, they bemoaned the backlog even while veterans died waiting for benefits and healthcare.
In 2016, the VA admitted in Congressional testimony that they would likely never clear up the backlog of VA Claims. (Let THAT sink in for a minute)
Now, in 2017, the VA is claiming the earliest it can eliminate the appeals backlog is 2026.
You know what this reminds me of? The nonsense our last 8 Presidents have spewed about plans to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. Or every other politicians promise to fix a long-standing problem in American life or society.
The VA has built up a significant Deficiency of Trust – I don’t think I need to say anything more than that
I’m not here to bash the VA – I believe that there are many good people at the VA who are just as stymied by the bureaucracy as veterans are. And even if there weren’t good people at the VA, badmouthing them doesn’t get us anywhere.
Griping and moaning about the horrors of the VA system don’t fix your VA claim or appeal.
I believe it’s our job to stop talking trash about the VA (its just not effective) and to START talking about solutions.
How Veterans can use this information to improve their own VA Claim.
I don’t know about you – but I don’t want to be on the VA Hamster Wheel any longer than I have to be.
[Admittedly, that’s not everyone’s approach. I know one “Veterans’ Advocate” that proposes Veterans bungle their claims pro-se for 20 years, then have a lawyer step in and file a CUE claim so they get a chunk of back-pay (Someone needs to explain the concept of the Present Value of money to that clown, whose identity I’ll keep quiet…for now.)]
I suspect you are the same way – whether your claim is in the Legacy Appeals Process (the old hamster wheel) or the Appeals Modernization Process (the new Hamster Wheel) or the RAMP program (the bridge moving you from the old hamster wheel to the new hamster wheel), nobody wants to be on this roller coaster any longer than they have to be.
I think the key to getting out of the Hamster Wheel is helping the VA rater who reviews your claim or appeal to quickly understand what your claim is about, quickly find the evidence to support the elements of your claim, and have confidence that the information you provided is reliable, credible and accurate.
The more a veteran strives to make his or her claim or appeal like that, the quicker and more satisfying the results will be in their claim or appeal.
The problem is that so many veterans out there – and maybe you are in this group – think that you have done this when in fact you have not. One of the most important things I think a veteran trying to improve their claim or appeal should do is look – with objectivity and humility – at what they have done so far in their claim.
Be willing to accept that you might have messed it up – that you may not have made your claim or appeal as direct, concise and easy as you could have.
Don’t beat yourself up about that – resolve to figure it out and start improving it today.
To begin to look at your claim or appeal with objectivity and humility, take a look at my eBook: “The 5 Reasons the VA Keeps Screwing Up Your Claim (and How You Have the Power to Fix Them).” See how many of the 5 Reasons show up in your claim or appeal.
Once you’ve figured that out, commit to making your VA Claim or Appeal direct, concise, and easy for a VA rater to grant.
Commit yourself to following a process to improve your VA claim or appeal.
8 Steps to Improve your Experience in the VA Claims Process.
It would be nice if I could post a quick answer, but I can’t. Every Veteran’s claim is unique, so there is NO cookie cutter approach.
That said, I do have a blueprint for you.
Here are what I believe are the 8 Steps you’ll need to take to make your VA disability claim “direct, concise and easy”:
Step 1: See the Problem.
We already talked about this a little. Until you can look at your claim with objectivity and humility, and admit that you have been the biggest reason your claim has not produced the results you want, you will continue to have only “luck” in the VA Claims Process.
I am NOT saying that the VA backlog is YOUR fault. Not at all.
What I AM saying is that none of us have a whole lot of time to wallow in the mud: life is too short, and the stakes are too high.
If your car isn’t working, do you blame Ford or Chevy? Maybe, but not for long. You certainly won’t spend 8 years trying to complain about how the Ford or Chevy union is the reason their product is garbage – at least not before you’ve fixed your car. Most people in this situation take their car to a mechanic to get the problem diagnosed and fixed.
When that is all done, then they decide if they have the time, energy and desire to troll Ford about their employee’s union.
How do you take your VA claim or appeal to the mechanic? Start here:
Understand the 5 Reasons that the VA Keeps Screwing Up Your Claim.
Step 2: Get your VA C-File
This is the most important document in the entire VA claim. If you don’t know what it is, you should learn. If you don’t have it, you should get a copy.
Regularly update it. (Every year is probably more than enough). Before or after every major decision is another way. Just pick a recurring time to update your C-File, and do it.
If you don’t know what the VA is relying on to deny your claim or appeal, you cannot even begin to figure out what is wrong or how to fix it.
Find out what is in – and what is NOT in – your VA C-File.
Step 3: Learn the Law.
I am not a dumb man. As a law student, I clerked for the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court – only law student in my school’s history to have that honor. I took, and passed, 2 state bars. I regularly teach Veterans advocates how to understand the law of VA claims.
I don’t say that to “toot my own horn.” I mention that only to say this: the law of VA claims is obtuse, impenetrable, and in many cases, damn near impossible to understand or figure out. The cynic in me says that is intentional. The strategist in me says that too many people are pulling the law in different directions.
The realist in me says: “Who gives a crap about all that?!?”
A basic understanding of the laws of service connection, concepts of evidence, laws unique to your specific type of claim, and the basic flow of the VA claims and appeals process are all that you really need to know.
So if you have a TDIU claim, learn how TDIU claims work.
If you have a Sleep Apnea claim, learn how Sleep Apnea claims REALLY work.
If you are trying to increase your PTSD rating, or want to get a better knee rating, or a total disability rating, study how to do that.
You get the idea. There are over 1,000 posts on this blog, chock full of claim-specific information. Get a monthly or annual subscription and start learning.
Step 4: Build your 4 Pillars
If you don’t have a basic understanding of the concept of service connection, you are going to get slaughtered by the VA. Every. Single. Time.
I’ve watched veterans spin their wheels trying to prove to the VA that there diabetes is service-connected, only to learn 5 years into the claim that they never proved that they HAVE diabetes.
I’ve watched veterans flood the VA with copies of VA Form 21-4138 ranting how their claim’s effective date should go back to 1965, without ever having introduced any evidence explaining what in service event is related to their current medical condition.
I have produced a FIVE HOUR training video that will teach you more about what service connection is and how to prove each of the 4 Pillars of a VA claim than any other resource available online.
This training video is 4 hours longer than the class I teach to attorneys on the same topic. I’m not saying you’ll know more than an attorney after watching this video. But I am willing to say that if you invest in this video training, you will start to see your claim in a different light, and you will start to see what you need to do to change or improve the outcome in your VA claim or appeal.
Click here to learn more about the 5 hour training video: How to Prove the 4 Pillars of a VA Service Connection Claim.
Step 5: Get 5 Star Evidence
After you’ve learned the 4 basic – but critical – pillars of a VA claim, you will need to introduce evidence to prove them. Some of this evidence may already be in the C-File (see Step #2, above). Most of it will not be.
Many veterans spend years sending in buddy statement after buddy statement to prove to the VA that their respiratory condition is related to their exposure to particulate matter in the burn pits in Southwest Asia. What they may not realize is that medical evidence would be better for this particular element of a VA claim, or what that medical evidence should say.
Or, a veteran might spend years trying to convince the VA that their PTSD is related to a military sexual trauma, but may not know what evidence can overcome a “junk science” C&P opinion.
In Step 4, you educated yourself on WHAT you need to prove in a VA claim or appeal.
In Step 5, you should learn HOW and WHEN to use medical and lay evidence to prove your VA claim or appeal.
You can start on the path to understand what “Five Star Evidence” is in a VA claim or appeal by reading the exclusive Veterans Law Blog® eBook: The VA Claims Evidence Field Manual.
Step 6: Choose your Battlefield
In my opinion, this is the hardest of the 8 Steps to Improving your VA claim or appeal.
It gets harder every time the VA tries to “improve” the claims or appeals process.
Currently, there are THREE processes: the Legacy Appeals Process, the Modernization Process, and the RAMP process. Within each of those claims processes are a myriad of options.
Whichever process you are in, it is important that you understand how the system is SUPPOSED to work, and evaluate or strategize what you need to do to win your claim or appeal (hopefully) at the next opportunity.
For example, the point of a DRO hearing (legacy appeals system) or a Higher Level Review Conference (AMA system) may not be to “win” your claim. Maybe you just want a decision reopening your claim so that you can prove the missing element to the VA regional office.
The biggest obstacle to learning the VA claims process is, to be honest, other veterans. We all have our war stories, and years of misinformation have become accepted beliefs about how the system works.
Perhaps you have heard that you should always request a BVA hearing because you need a face to face conversation with a BVA veterans law judge – then the VA will understand you. In fact, a BVA hearing may not be at all appropriate or necessary in your appeal.
Perhaps you have heard any number of these fairy tales about the VA claims process. If so, it’s time to forget all that.
Learn about the basic steps in the modernized appeals process here. Learn about the basic steps in the legacy appeals process here.
Subscribe to the Veterans Law Blog® so that you can get the most up-to-date information about changes in any of those processes.
Once you understand the VA claims process, you can develop and implement a strategy for navigating it in the most efficient way.
Step 7: Get Help
I firmly believe that most veterans can improve their own VA Claims and appeals, without the need to work with a VSO or hire an attorney.
I said MOST. Not ALL. Some of you have claims that are going to be really hard to prove and win on your own.
Appeals to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, appeals involving effective dates, appeals of denied survivor benefits, particularly accrued benefits, TDIU (particularly if you are still getting paid because you work in a sheltered environment), fibromyalgia claims, extra-schedular ratings, extra-schedular TDIU, knee ratings, and more – these are just a sampling of some of the types of appeals that I think are very hard for veterans to do well on their own.
Primarily because the law in this areas is so ‘intricate,’ and full of traps for the unwary (and full of small nuances that only the most experienced attorneys and VSOs know how to take advantage of), I recommend that you consider contacting an attorney if you have been fighting the VA on any one of the above issues, or if you have been fighting an appeal for more than 3-5 years. I think there are rock-solid VSOs out there, but the strength of most VSOs lies in the initial claim, not the appeal.
So learn what an attorney can do for your VA appeal, break through some of the myths about attorneys, and get a copy of my FREE eBook to learn how to make the BEST choice you can make in hiring the right attorney for your unique VA Appeal. Oh, and learn some of the reasons an attorney might decline to offer a consultation or representation – they aren’t all bad reasons.
I’d also say this: know when you are in over your head.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from an attorney. And don’t wait until the last minute before a hearing or deadline to contact an attorney. Attorneys do their best work when we look at a case that is really close to a denial decision — not when the case is close to a deadline or hearing.
Step 8: Protect Your Survivors and Dependents
You know when you are on an airplane, they have those standard safety announcements? Do you remember the one that says “If you are seated next to someone, take care to put your own oxygen mask before trying to help someone with theirs”?
Same idea here.
Take care of getting your claim and appeal squared away, but after you have done everything you can, take care of your survivors and dependents.
For example, if you think that you are likely to die because of one of the conditions you are seeking service connection for, tell your spouse about accrued benefits, and what to do if you pass away.
Or, if you have been service connected at 100% more than 10 years, tell your spouse about DIC benefits he or she may receive.
Don’t forget your children, too – in some cases, they may be eligible for educational assistance or other survivor benefits based on your service connected conditions.
Educate yourself about survivor benefits, and then educate your survivors.
None of those steps is easy.
It can take weeks or months to get your VA C-File, even using the Veterans Law Blog® method.
It can take months to figure out – based on what is missing from your VA C-File – how to keep the VA from screwing it up.
And you can spend a lot of time learning the law that applies to your unique VA Claim.
There is a LOT of bad info out there.
More than that, I’ve been at this for 7 years, and it takes about 45 seconds on the phone with Ken Carpenter to convince me that I could spend a lifetime on this work and never become a “specialist”.
But remember: you don’t need to play the VA’s shell game anymore: you can play your own game. You can take back the Power in your VA Claims and appeals.
Complaining – no matter how legitimate – is wasted energy that distracts us from our core mission: getting the benefits to which we are entitled.
In the words of one musician: “Play the Game, Don’t Let the Game Play You”.
Remember, too, that there are good and decent hard-working men and women at the VA – when you find one of them publicly recognize them. Tell us about them and we’ll get them some props, too.
As to dealing the VA: we’ll talk about ways to handle them in another post. For now, don’t give the VA power by fighting with them. Find another way around the VA’s denials – whether through a supplemental claim, a BVA appeal, a Veterans Court appeal, or even hiring an attorney.
You are not fighting to change the VA. You are not fighting to fix the government.
Here is what you ARE doing: you are fighting for yourself to cut through the fog of VA Claims, and you are fighting for the veteran next to you – share what you learn with other veterans.