VA Announces Fast-Track Claims System…but is it for you?
At the end of last year, the VA announced more information about its new fast-track claims system, called the Decision Ready Claims (DRC) Program. Originally available only for claims for increases to disability compensation, the DRC is now available for many of the main types of claims filed with the VA.
The Decision Ready Claims program offers veterans a way to receive a decision from the VA in less than thirty days. Finally, the VA created a system for veterans to get a quick response to their claims! We in the veterans’ assistance community certainly hope for this program to be a success. But I also see a few potential pitfalls.
The DRC program is a new “fast-track” claims system that allows a veteran, working with an accredited Veteran Service Organization (VSO), to develop the evidence needed to substantiate the claim. Once the veteran and VSO submit the claim and related evidence, the VA will make a decision on that claim in less than 30 days.
The types of claims that veterans can submit through the DRC program include:
• direct service connection claims (relating to events during service)
• presumptive service connection claims (such as Agent Orange exposure)
• secondary service connection claims (conditions aggravated or caused by a
service-connected claim that you received a disability rating for)
• increased disability claims (when your disability gets worse)
• DIC claims (for surviving spouses of veterans who died from their service-connected disability or who were 100% disabled)
• Pre-discharge claims (for active-duty servicemembers)
These are the majority of types of claims I see in my law practice. In a straightforward case, where the servicemember is willing to put in the work and already has his or her medical records, the DRC program will be a good option. But let’s take a look at the fine print.
The Fine Print.
The DRC program has a bunch of exclusions. Are you discharging and pregnant? Can’t use it. Did you already file or appeal your claim? Sorry, not available to you. Was your claim previously denied? The DRC can’t help you. Is your claim for PTSD or traumatic brain injury (TBI)? You have you go through the regular claims process, unless you are filing your claim while still on active duty. And that’s not all -you can review the full list of exclusions here.
Some of these exclusions make sense, and are intended to streamline the claims process. Unfortunately, if you’ve already filed your claim or are appealing a previous denial you are just going to have to wait for a decision (which, in some cases, may come from your regional office within just a few months).
This program puts a heavy burden on the Veteran Service Organizations. Since you must go through an accredited VSO to file a claim through the DRC, the VSOs may see a dramatic increase in work load. And while dedicated to their missions, it’s unclear if they have the resources to meet a sharp increase in veterans who need significant claims assistance.
Furthermore, the quality of assistance from VSO agents varies. The majority of my appeals are for claims that a more qualified-VSO agent could have easily addressed many years before the case reaches me.
Reviewing medical records can be tedious, and the VSOs are obligated to help veterans fully develop their claims before filing. This means the VSO must help the veteran get important service and medical records together, get appropriate medical opinions and/or schedule the veteran for a C&P exam with the VA. All before filing the claim.
Ultimately, the DRC program is faster because it shifts the burden of work onto the veteran (with assistance by the VSO) to fully develop the claim. Some veterans may not mind the work involved; but for some veterans, it may be difficult or physically impossible to take on this burden. Veterans with physical or mental limitations, or limited access to technology that can help them to communicate efficiently with the VSO agent and their medical providers may be overwhelmed by the work involved in this program. Between medical appointments, VSO appointments, and paperwork, it’s a lot of work.
It remains to be seen how well this program works. It seems to me that it will be especially helpful to younger veterans who have relatively straightforward claims and all of their necessary paperwork.
But unfortunately, the program doesn’t address the central delay at the VA right now – appeals. And until the VA properly trains its employees and fixes its subtlety antagonistic culture, it will not eliminate the overwhelming number of mistakes that lead to appeal. And without those big changes, the DRC program will just be a fast-track system straight into the clogged appeals pipeline.