I have heard a lot from my clients about their experiences with the VA appeals process. Some folks are understandably frustrated after a decade of what feels like endless paperwork, and some have short, positive experiences getting the benefits they deserve. Here, I want to address a few misconceptions that veterans may have about the VA and the appeals process, as well as some tips to help you when you are representing yourself.
1. The VA will not do the work for you.
The VA claims reviewers have an incredibly high caseload, especially when you get deep into the appeals process. If you are lucky, you will get a good one who sees the error in the initial decision and offers a swift reversal. I have even seen review officers decide in favor of the veteran for more than they originally asked. But that is rare. Most reviewers are just going to go through their checklist – do not expect them to search through a huge c-file to find the information that is in your favor.
2. You must read everything the VA sends you.
One problem I see in the appeals process is that veterans become so overwhelmed with the letters they get from the VA, they start to ignore them. This is a problem, because if you don’t respond to what the VA is asking for by their deadline, your appeal can suffer. If the VA asks you to provide a correct address, or a waiver to request your private medical records, or more information on the circumstances surrounding your disability, you will be much more successful if you respond. If you are confused about what any correspondence means, you can take your paperwork to the local veteran service organization or veteran legal non-profit.
3. Make your argument clear so they know how to help you.
One mistake veterans make is not making their point clear. The review officers are busy and you have a higher chance of success if you can make their job easy for them. Make sure you know how your claim is classified by looking up the Schedule for Rating Disabilities. Read what it requires of each classification and then tailor your argument to those categories.
4. The VA appeals process is separate from your VA medical treatment.
While the appeals side has access to your VA medical records, the reviewers do not necessarily review every record available. You must point out information in your record that helps your claim. The VA medical professionals and VA appeals reviewers are not communicating about your claim.
5. The VA is not an evil monolith, set against you.
This may be a controversial point. The appeals process is lengthy, and sometimes flawed. Often, veterans feel like just a number. But there are many employees of the VA who do want to help veterans get the benefits they deserve. Hopefully, in the course of your experience with the VA, you encounter the helpful employees. But if not, it’s important to keep in mind that these employees are working under performance quotas and immense pressure to speed up the appeals process. The people who make up the VA are only human, and humans make mistakes. With that in mind, approaching the process with a positive and patient outlook will improve your overall experience dealing with the VA.