5 Tips for Applying for VA Disability Benefits
Steps to Take When Applying for VA Disability Benefits
There are some important steps to take when you apply for VA disability benefits. Some of them apply situationally, such as what to do if you have to start the application process from an overseas location.
Others are more universal, such as knowing what to do if you lose your DD Form 214, Report of Discharge, or the Guard/Reserve Equivalent. When you prepare to make a claim with the VA you will need to collect your medical records from both military and civilian care providers and you may also need supporting evidence in the form of “buddy letters” from friends and family.
Here are some important tips that can help you better prepare for the application process and beyond.
5. Applying For VA Disability: Gather Your Medical Records
If you need to apply for VA compensation for a service-connected medical issue, your military medical records are one of the most obvious resources you must gather. But do you know how to access your records?
If you are retiring or separating from the United States military from a stateside location this issue is important, but for those doing so from an overseas military base, there is a greater sense of urgency. Why? Because it will be exponentially harder to obtain your records from an overseas location you cannot personally visit once you have retired or separated.
If you cannot hand-carry your military medical records from an overseas location it may be necessary to make arrangements to have those records submitted to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Some overseas bases or forward-deployed locations may not have the same resources that larger installations do; if your resources are limited, check with your First Sergeant, Command Sergeant Major, Detailer, or command support staff to learn your options in this area.
Equally important? Gathering your non-military medical records for any care you received during your commission or enlistment. Such records may provide supporting documentation you can use to reinforce your claim. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the Department of Veterans Affairs only wants your military medical records. Any supporting evidence can be used toward your claim.
4. Collect More Supporting Evidence
Some also mistakenly believe that medical records are the only documents that can support your claim with the VA. This is NOT true; the Department of Veterans Affairs encourages those filing medical claims to include a variety of information including letters from a care provider that explain your condition and how it has affected your day-to-day life.
And letters from a doctor are not the only ones that you can submit. Have you ever heard of a “buddy letter”? This is something you can request from friends, family, and co-workers. Your buddy letter should include a brief explanation of how long you have known the letter writer, the nature of your relationship, and other relevant information.
But most importantly, the buddy letter should include specific and detailed information about how your medical issue has affected your life, any changes the letter writer has noticed since the injury, illness, or incident, and any other relevant observations along those lines.
Buddy letters help the VA claims reviewer to find a human side to the medical records and other data; never underestimate the power of an emotional testimony in writing to help your cause.
3. Safeguard Your Records
More people lose their official documents (including discharge paperwork) than you might think. One of the biggest causes? Your last permanent change of station move out of your final assignment and to your home of record or elsewhere.
It’s very easy to misplace the single-page Report of Discharge (DD Form 214 for active-duty servicemembers) and if you cannot locate this crucial paperwork, you’ll have to apply to get a replacement. At one time it was necessary to apply for this via the National Archives, a process that can take months. If you are trying to make a deadline or get your claim reviewed in a timely manner, that delay could be a complicating factor.
Today, servicemembers have the option of requesting a replacement Report of Discharge online via MilConnect. This is an option for those who have a Premium DSLogon account. You can learn more about setting up such an account at the VA official site.
To protect your military records it is a smart idea to digitally scan your DD Form 214 and save it online or on your device, then print out for use when submitting your claim.
2. Refresh Your Memory
Part of the claims process with the Department of Veterans Affairs is listing out all the medical issues you want to claim in as much detail as possible. It is typically not an effective approach to simply walk into that process and try to do it all from memory. It helps to list out the conditions you want to claim in advance and then have a good look at your medical records to make certain you have not forgotten anything.
A head injury you had ten years ago might not be as fresh in your mind as a more recent illness or injury. Review your records and don’t forget to include a review of any supporting evidence such as the records from a civilian care provider.
When it comes to a medical claim, no detail is too small. You never know what may or may not be relevant to the claims reviewer, so it’s best to include any information about the condition you’ve experienced no matter how trivial it might seem.
1. Know The Process
By this, we mean understanding how the VA assigns disability ratings for various conditions. For example, did you know some medical conditions reviewed during the VA claims process have a cap or limit on the percentage of disability assigned? For example, if you have tinnitus and the VA awards you a disability claim for that condition, your rating will typically be limited to 10% no matter how severe the condition is.
Compare that to the VA rating for amputation of an entire arm, which may be awarded up to 100%. The loss of a single hand could be rated as high as 70% but not 100%. Amputation is rated differently than “loss of use”.
These nuances are good to know when considering your VA medical claims application. It’s also a good idea to learn what the VA will approve from your claim and make plans from there. It’s a bad idea to start counting your potential disability benefits pay too early–don’t count on that as income until you have been awarded a disability percentage from the VA on a formal basis.
The claims review process takes time, and some who apply may feel they are up against an external deadline, such as when buying a home with your VA loan benefits. If you have a VA disability rating, you may be exempt from paying the VA Loan Funding Fee, which can run into the thousands of dollars.
But those who await a VA decision on their claim can’t use that exemption until it is an official part of their military records. It’s a bad idea to pin hopes that a VA claim will be approved soon enough to beat a deadline for a loan for that exemption. Chances are good the process will take longer than you realize. The good news in this particular situation is that you can apply for a refund for the VA loan funding fee once your VA claim has been approved.
About the author
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter/editor for Air Force Television News and the Pentagon Channel. His freelance work includes contract work for Motorola, VALoans.com, and Credit Karma. He is co-founder of Dim Art House in Springfield, Illinois, and spends his non-writing time as an abstract painter, independent publisher, and occasional filmmaker.