The Veteran community is chattering lately – about changes that the VA rolled out March 25, 2015.
One of those changes – and it is important to stress that this is only one of the many recent changes – is the VA’s decision to allegedly require certain standard forms be used in the filing of new and/or Fully Developed Claims.
Today’s post is what I call a “concept” post – I’m going to talk to you about the “WHY” of what the VA is doing.
Those of you that follow and value the Veterans Law Blog know that once you understand the “WHY” parts of the VA Claims Process, you can tweak the “WHAT” and “HOW” parts to get your claim moving more quickly.
(Some call this process “reverse engineering”).
VA Claims are a lot like my favorite sport – baseball – once you understand WHY certain rules exist, you become much better at playing the game.
In future posts over the next couple of weeks, I will be sharing a lot of “Concept” information and a lot of “Practical” How To Information that no other VSO, or no other attorney is willing to share with you.
Stay tuned…subscribe here to stay in touch:
3 Forms That Are Allegedly Now Mandatory: VA Form 21-526ez, 21-527, and 21-534.
The VA Form 21-526ez is the application for Service Connected Disability Compensation.
The VA Form 21-534 is the application for certain Survivor Benefits
The VA Form 21-527 is the application for non-service connected combat pension.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Effective March 24, 2015, any Notice of Disagreement MUST be Filed on VA Form 21-0958. IT IS NOW MANDATORY THAT NODs filed ON/AFTER March 24, 2015, BE FILED USING VA FORM 21-0958.
I say “allegedly”, because I’m still seeing conflicting reports coming out of the VA.
Take this website screenshot for example:
As of March 31, 2015, at 8:20pm (Central time), the following STILL appeared on the VA’s “How to Apply for Compensation” Page:
Notice the language: “Alternatively, you may print and mail-in VA Form 21-526ez”.
Now, I’m a lawyer, so I’m used to parsing words and phrases and finding the different meaning.
But to a layman, that screen still reads like the VA Form 21-526ez is optional. As every Federal Court has said sometime in its history, the word “May” connotes “optional”, the word “Must” connotes “Mandatory”.
So, with that in mind, the safest options are to file your initial claim form online using the eBenefits system (a system that is not yet close to being functional or user-friendly) or to file it using the forms stated above.
I am staying away from the discussion of the “Notice of Intent to File a Claim” process that the VA has rolled out – only because I’m still researching what this is really all about…I’ll post on it soon enough here.
Why is the VA Pushing Mandatory Forms?
Inconsistent Decisions, obscenely long Claims and Appeals Backlogs, and significantly disparate Rating and Service-Connection criteria from region to region have been the hallmark of the VA Claims Process for the last 30 years, if not the last 200 years.
Adding to the problem is the VA’s historical unwillingness to standardize and simplify the claims and appeals process.
One of the biggest reasons we have the VA Claims backlog we do is because we are trying to reintegrate Disabled Veterans using half-century old processes and technology.
Metaphorically speaking, that’s the equivalent of trying to win the Indy 500 while driving Herbie the Lovebug.
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The use of mandatory forms is a step in the right direction- if for no other reason than it is a tacit acknowledgment by the VA that their failures are premised on an appalling lack of consistency and simplicity in providing benefits for a community that very much requires consistency and simplicity if they have any hope of a more tranquil reintegration to civilian life after 14 years of war.
The VA’s public rationale for using Mandatory Forms is best summed up by this quote from Allison Hickey, the Undersecretary of Benefits at the VA, when she appeared to talk to Veterans at the Muskogee, Oklahoma, VA Regional Office:
“Standardized forms will allow the Muskogee VA Regional Office to provide faster and more accurate decisions to our Veterans, their families and survivors,” said Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey. “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.”
I am behind that 97%.
Standardized FORMS will not achieve the desired result – only standardized DATA will do the trick.
(This will seem like semantics to some, but to those Veterans and lawyers that are techies, or that have attempted to build software or digital systems, the distinction is as wide as the Grand Canyon.)
But the spirit of what General Hickey said is spot-on corret: standardizing and streamlining the VA Claims Process – and the workflows that employees follow in that process – will better serve Veterans.
The changes in “required” form use are a valiant and important first step.
Are Mandatory Forms Necessary to Achieve That Goal?
This is where I diverge from the VA – Mandatory Forms are not necessary.
Data is only as good – and consistent – as the way that data it is input.
And forms work best when the data is uniform and consistent – if there is anything you and I both know about Veteran’s Claims, nothing is uniform or consistent about them.
While I fully support the USE of standardized data input, I firmly believe that human beings should be doing the input of that data – and not the 21 million Veterans with 21 million unique claims.
The role of inputting data into the claims processing system should always be owned by the VA.
VSOs traditionally have been the primary helper in this role – they have always had a lead role in helping with the FILING of claims because (in theory) they could be trusted to properly understand the Veteran’s situation and convert it to a useable and understandable claim.
VSOs have largely given up that role – now, very little of their money is spent on this function.
The DAV spends a small fortune enriching its leadership, hawking “whole-life-burial-death-and-dismembership-dental-insurance-policies”, and mailing out beer coozies and return address labels to people like me that can’t remember how to seal an envelope, no less “WTF” a return address label is for.
What I think is MORE important than rolling out and publicizing Mandatory Forms is communicating the broad vision of the VA to the Veterans Community.
After all, it is the VISION that will inspire Veterans – the CHANGES only prove the fulfillment of the Vision.
That broader vision – the REAL reason that the VA is requiring mandatory forms – will help to change the system better and faster.
Are Mandatory Claim Forms like the VA Form 21-526ez a GOOD Thing for Veterans?
As much as I dislike the idea of standardized forms, it’s a step in the right direction.
A good “beta” test as they say in the tech world.
It will help the VA to start solving the problem of inconsistent claims decisions and ratings.
It will help the VA to better train a workforce to start grasping the concept of work-flow and process.
It will help the VA to more efficiently structure its electronic databases.
BUT…if the VA is not careful, they are going to shut out an entire class of Veterans who probably need VA Benefits the most.
For example, the US Census reported in September 2014 that 2 out of 10 American households don’t have a computer.
1in 4 Americans still don’t have access to the Internet.
Most of these folks are in rural areas – areas where large proportions of Veterans still live and work in very large numbers.
If we aren’t careful, we are going to replace one broken claims process with another.
What is the Real Reason the VA is Requiring Mandatory Forms?
“Mandatory” forms are only the first step, folks.
The real goal – the one that is not talked about publicly – is that the VA is moving to what is called a “National Work Queue”.
What is that, you ask. All explanations of the present start in the past, so let me rewind 80, or 100 years.
Take yourself back to the 1920s….the population of the US was just starting to move from the farms to cities. Phones were a rarity, cars a luxury afforded only to the rich.
Horses, telegraph and the US Mail were still the primary ways that folks communicated.
And the US government was nowhere near the colossal elephant it is today.
To deliver services to the local level, the federal government relied on regional hubs. This was where the Regional Office concept was born – it existed at some level in just about every Federal Government Agency.
100 years ago, it was just faster for a benefits office in Houston to process a claim for a Veteran in the Houston area than it was for a Veteran to mail their claim to Washington, DC, to be processed.
With the advent of fax machines, the internet, and broadband internet, this is no longer true.
Regional claims processing may even be LESS efficient today.
So the VA is building a system where benefits can be decided – from anywhere. This is an over-simplified explanation, to be sure.
Here’s an example: a Veteran in Memphis files her claim through a VSO that transmits the data (using a required form) to the VA’s primary “database”. That data is stored in an electronic file for the Veteran, and is assigned by the VA to be adjudicated by a rater.
Where is the rater?
Wherever the workflow determines it would be most quickly, efficiently and uniformly handled. Maybe Little Rock. Maybe Waco. Maybe Iowa.
This isn’t that BAD of a concept – my law firm is trying to do the very same thing in building a “Law Firm Without Walls”.
In addition to represent Veterans, and writing this blog, I am working with the Tech Geniuses at Nextcoder.com to build a Case Manager that will allow attorneys to work more efficiently and get claims PUSHED through the VA.
(Early tests of our system show that a simple Notice of Disagreement can be resolved in 6 – 11 months).
The concept is based on assignment of cases to attorneys and Case Development Teams around the US, depending on available capacity and demonstrated efficiency.
So naturally, I love the concept of the National Work Queue.
If the VA can pull it off, it may well be the first time that the VA has had the potential to deliver benefits to Veterans in a way that really affects reintegration efforts.
I worry, though, that there are too many old hatreds in the systems to make it work, though.
Veterans are frustrated with VSOs.
VSOs try to blame attorneys.
Attorneys are fighting to make sure their clients get justice.
Its going to take some serious leadership from the VA to recognize the “changing of the guard” in the advocacy community – to recognize which stakeholders are putting a stake in their hearts, and which stakeholders need to be given a stake to hold.
That’s All Good and Great, Chris…..But What is a Veteran to Do TODAY?
Use the form.
I don’t see any significant problems with the VA Form 21-526ez, the VA Form 21-534, or the VA Form 21-527 (the VA Form 21-0958, on the other hand, is a walking talking violation of due process).
But follow these tried and true principles when filing your claim:
- Where the data doesn’t “fit” into a VA form, use a letter to explain what you are saying.
- Label attachments (also known as continuation pages) to any Form that you submit to the VA.
- Keep copies to prove what you submitted and when.
- Be able to Prove delivery to, and receipt by, the VA (we’ll talk more about new ways to do that when I tell you about Evidence Intake Centers in an upcoming post).
- Don’t believe anyone that tells you that your claim is “dead” or should be denied because you didn’t use a particular form. (If someone tells you this, talk to an attorney – whatever anyone tells you about these forms, they are procedural tools. They are not substantive in nature, and should NEVER be used to limit or preclude the service -connection compensation benefits that Veterans have a Constitutionally protected property interest in receiving.)
- And for god’s sake, do not try to fit your unique claim into the standardized (tiny) square boxes if your facts don’t fit in the square box….if a VSO or the VA tells you NOT to put something on a form, put it on the form twice.
Because what you leave OUT of your initial claim form is often the could be the very thing you might have needed to prove the claim and receive the benefits that will support your reintegration – 25 days or 25 years after service.
You tell me – what do ya’ll think of the concept of a National Work Queue?