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NVLSP Issues Tips To Help Veterans Safeguard Disability Benefits, In Light Of VA’s Changes

Released 4/8/15 | Tags: Veteran's Benefits



WASHINGTON – A new rule by the Department of Veterans Affairs that became effective on March 24, 2015 ends much of the informal claims process for VA disability benefits and limits the types of inferred claims VA will adjudicate.  The rule leaves injured and disabled veterans at a serious disadvantage when applying for VA disability compensation. 

Two aspects of the new rule are particularly important.  First, the new rule eliminates the decades-old right of a veteran to initiate the VA adjudication process by writing a plain letter to the VA seeking a specific VA benefit.  Second, under the new rule, VA severely limits the types of benefits that the agency will adjudicate when presented with a disability benefits claim by a veteran.  If a veteran files a disability claim based on post-traumatic stress disorder but fails to mention in the application that he or she lost both legs in combat, VA is no longer obligated to develop or adjudicate any benefits related to the veteran’s amputations—even if the service treatment record documents the amputations.

Veterans service organizations such as NVLSP, The American Legion, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Vietnam Veterans of America, and AMVETS are challenging these unfair changes in court.  But until and unless these new VA rules are declared unlawful, they will continue to impact any VA disability claims for compensation filed on or after March 24, 2015.  Accordingly, NVLSP issues the following tips to help veterans safeguard their benefits to the extent possible under these new rules and to guide advocates assisting veterans:

Tip #1: Use VA’s new “Intent to File a Claim” process—not an informal letter—to initiate your claim.  Under the new rules, writing a letter to VA stating you want to file a VA claim for disability compensation for a medical condition that you believe is connected to your military service will no longer start a VA claim on your behalf.  Therefore, such letters will no longer be sufficient to “lock in” an early effective date for the benefits you are seeking.  Instead, to establish the earliest possible effective date for their benefits, applicants should immediately notify VA of their intent to file a claim by using VA’s new “Intent to File a Claim” formal process.  Applicants can establish their “intent to file a claim” in one of four ways:

(1)         Electronically.  You can express your “intent to file a claim” by starting the claim process through (i) eBenefits or (ii) with the support of a Veterans Service Organization (VSO) through the Stakeholder Enterprise Portal.  Once you initiate a claim electronically, you have one year to complete it.  Make sure you print out a copy of your electronic “intent to file.”  If you are represented by a VSO, contact your representative and they can take you through this process.

(2)         Standard Form.  You can express your “intent to file a claim” by completing and mailing a paper VA Form 21-0966 (Intent to File a Claim for Compensation and/or Pension, or Survivors Pension and/or DIC).  Completed forms must be mailed to your nearest regional benefits office.  NVLSP recommends that: (i) you keep a copy of the completed form; (2) you keep a copy of any submitted evidence or documentation; and (3) you submit your form to VA via certified mail with return receipt.

(3)         Telephone.  You can express your “intent to file a claim” over the phone by calling the VA toll-free line at 1-800-827-1000.  If you choose this option, NVLSP recommends that you stay on the line even though the VA’s phone lines are often congested and have significant wait times.  NVLSP recommends that you DO NOT use the “call back at a later date or time” option, as this may delay your claim.  NVLSP recommends that any veteran or survivor filing a claim over the phone request that the person on VA representative send you a “copy of the report of contact” (VA Form 119) created by the call.

(4)         In Person.  You can express your “intent to file a claim” in person by speaking with a VA representative at a VA regional benefits office.  NVLSP recommends you keep a copy of all documentation submitted.

•             Veterans may appoint a duly authorized representative, such as a veterans service organization (VSO), who can notify VA of a claimant’s intent to file using any of the methods listed above.  VA will provide an individual up to one year from the date of the letter asking for information to complete the required application form.

•             Veterans may wish to use this one-year period to gather evidence necessary to support the claim so that evidence can be submitted along with the application form.  If you gather all information necessary, we suggest you use VA Forms that end with EZ to expedite the adjudication of your claim.

Tip #2: Consult your representative.  NVLSP strongly recommends that you talk with your service officer before filing your formal claim (for example, the VA Form 21-526EZ).

Tip #3: Add the following statement to your attempts to claim VA compensation benefits.  Frequently, veterans suffer from multiple disabilities or illnesses linked to their military service.  Sometimes, veterans do not list all of their conditions on their application for benefits.  The new rules make it more difficult to obtain benefits for conditions that are not specifically identified in the benefits application.  While there is no way to ensure that you will be able to obtain benefits for conditions that are not expressly stated in an application, NVLSP recommends including the following statement in your VA Form 21-4138 (Statement in Support of Claim):

“In addition to my claim for _________________________________________, I also wish to claim service connection for all disabilities for which the evidence of record, including the evidence in my service records, supports a reasonable possibility of service connection.  Therefore, I ask the VA to carefully review my service records, especially my service treatment records, and consider for service connection all conditions that are reasonably inferred from the review of the entire evidence of record including my service treatment records.  I also request that you send me the appropriate VA Form to perfect my application.”

It is important to remember to fill in the blank with the condition that you are currently seeking service connection for.  You can download a copy of VA form 21-4138 with this statement already added to it on NVLSP’s website.

Tip #4: File your formal application for VA benefits using only the forms specified by the VA.  Veterans and survivors are under no obligation to submit an “intent to file.”  They can skip this step and immediately file an application for VA benefits if they believe they have the evidence in hand for a successful application or they believe they have submitted all evidence they can obtain.

Veterans filing for disability benefits must now use either VA Form 21-526EZ or VA Form 21-526 (Application for Disability Compensation and Related Compensation Benefits).

Wartime Veterans filing for needs-based pension must use VA Form 21-527EZ or VA Form 21-527 (Application for Pension).

Survivors filing a claim for dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC), survivor’s pension, and accrued benefits must now use either  VA Form 21-534EZ or VA Form 21-534 (Application for DIC, Death Pension, and/or Accrued Benefits).

NVLSP recommends you keep copies of all forms, evidence and documentation submitted to the VA.

If you choose to mail your application to VA, send it via certified mail with a return receipt, so you have proof of the application.

Reminder: None of the information issued on this news release should be construed as legal advice. NVLSP strongly recommends that you talk with your veteran’s advocate, service officer, lawyer or knowledgeable representative after submitting an “Intent to File” form but before filing an application for VA disability compensation.

The National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) is an independent, nonprofit veterans service organization that has served active duty military personnel and veterans since 1980. NVLSP strives to ensure that our nation honors its commitment to its 22 million veterans and active duty personnel by ensuring they have the federal benefits they have earned through their service to our country. NVSLP offers training for attorneys and other advocates, connects veterans and active duty personnel with pro bono legal help when seeking disability benefits, publishes the nation's definitive guide on veteran benefits, and represents and litigates for veterans and their families before the VA, military discharge review agencies and federal courts. For more information go to www.nvlsp.org.

Media contact: Ami Neiberger-Miller, 703-887-4877, ami@steppingstoneLLC.com


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