How to Avoid Mistakes When Claiming VA Disability Benefits
The VA disability claims process can be intimidating for newcomers. To file a VA claim for service-connected medical conditions, you must submit your military and civilian medical records, and make a case for your medical issues being service-connected.
Depending on how complicated your VA claim is, you may need to follow up your initial documentation with letters from friends and family (“buddy letters”) stating how they feel the condition has negatively affected your life and provide other supporting evidence for the VA claims reviewer.
It’s a lot to do, and a lot to keep track of. And it’s no surprise that there are some common mistakes people make during the process. Do you know how to avoid the most common VA disability benefits claim mistakes? Keep reading.
Carefully Review Your Military and Civilian Medical Records
You may have an idea of what you want to claim for VA disability compensation, but reviewing your medical history may reveal issues or problems you had treated but had forgotten about.
Do those issues support your claim or reveal a possible additional claim? Refresh your memory about your military medical history but do not forget to include any civilian medical records you have, too.
What to Look For in Your Medical Records Before Filing A VA Claim
There are a variety of issues you should bring to the attention of the VA–issues that may affect the VA’s decision to approve or deny your claim. Look for the following in both military and civilian medical records and note these in your application:
- Medical issues or treatment you may have forgotten about
- Evidence that one condition may be affecting or aggravating another condition
- Any indication that your current medical issues are improving or declining
- Any common factors among otherwise or seemingly unrelated conditions or injuries
- Evidence of medical issues related to military duty in areas with presumptive conditions (exposure to Agent Orange, asbestos, burn pits, etc.
- Misdiagnoses or corrected diagnoses
- “Story arcs” for medical issues you have been treated for during your career–initial reporting, treatment, outcomes, etc.
- Recurring medical issues or recurring treatment
- Unresolved medical issues or incomplete treatment
Don’t Wait Too Long To File Your VA Disability Claim
Your first VA claim is known as the “initial claim” and it’s crucial to begin working on this as early as possible before you depart military service. The VA submission and approval process can be time-consuming and more so if your medical claim is complicated.
If you act within 180-90 days before leaving active duty, you may be allowed to file what the VA describes as a “pre-discharge claim” that can help make the entire process move faster.
This is offered under a VA program called Benefits Delivery At Discharge or BDD.
Those who wait too long (less than 90 days left on active duty) are not allowed to file a BDD pre-discharge claim. It will still be processed but may take more than 120 days to complete.
Who Can File A BBD Pre-Discharge Claim
- Active duty troops including Guard/Reserve members
- Those with a “known separation date” within the next 180 to 90 days
- Those who can supply military medical records for the current period of service
- Those available to go to VA exams for 45 days from the claim date
Who Cannot File a BDD Claim
If you meet any of the criteria below you cannot use the BDD program and must apply for VA disability compensation and must file a “fully developed” VA disability claim (see below) or a standard claim.
- You need case management for a serious medical issue
- You are terminally ill
- You are waiting to be discharged while getting treatment at a DoD or VA facility
- You are pregnant
- You cannot attend a VA exam during the 45-day period after your VA claim is submitted
- You did not submit copies of your service treatment records
- You added a medical condition to your original claim with less than 90 days left on active duty
- You need a VA exam in a foreign country, with certain exceptions
Don’t Submit Incomplete Claims
It’s one thing to have a diagnosis of a specific medical condition in your medical records. But if you have a service-connected medical problem that has been documented in your records but without a complete diagnosis, the records may seem incomplete or confusing to the VA claims examiner responsible for reviewing the records.
- If you have a civilian diagnosis that either disagrees with or fills in the blanks for a military diagnosis (or lack of one) you will definitely need to provide supporting documentation of that in the form of any civilian medical records, buddy letters from friends and family, etc.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs needs the most complete picture of your health as possible, which may require additional appointments, consultations, checkups, etc.
- Make certain you provide the VA with as much information as possible to make a decision on your claim.
While the VA is required to exercise due diligence in helping you round out incomplete medical documentation, you will always be the best source of these documents. Start gathering them early, make them as complete as possible, and always try to get a doctor to commit a diagnosis in writing–explain that the VA needs this to support your claim.
Learn if you are eligible for VA disability compensation at the VA official site.
Show A Connection Between Military Service And Your Medical Condition
In providing the narrative for your military experience as it relates to your medical issues, you want to show in writing what you feel to be the cause-and-effect relationship between your medical issue. If you served in areas where the VA has presumed a service connection between certain medical issues and military service in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, or Afghanistan just to name a few.
- Write out a detailed explanation about how you became sick or hurt in the line of duty. State what may have caused the condition, why you feel this to be true, and include any supporting evidence that can help your claim.
- Be sure to include how the illness or injury has altered your life in the aftermath.
- Be as specific as possible with dates, technical details, risks, etc. You may need to do this separately or in addition to the space provided on VA forms–clearly indicate whether you are using a separate page or pages to include more information, put your name and contact information at the top of each separate page, and be sure to retain copies for your own records.
Be Sure to Claim Unemployability as a Result of the Disability
If you file for VA compensation for a service-connected medical issue, you may also qualify (depending on the condition) for a VA program called Individual Unemployability. This is a benefit that is applied in addition to any other VA benefit you may qualify for.
A large number of veterans seem to be unaware of this benefit, which is provided to those who do not have a 100% disability rating from the VA but who are unable to hold a job due to the condition.
You can file an Unemployability Claim without affecting your VA disability pay, and the extra benefits it provides may be very useful.
- In general, the veteran must have a service-connected disability rated at 60% or more disabling, or 2 or more service-connected disabilities with a combined rating of 70% or more.
- The veteran cannot hold down a steady job because of the service-connected disability.
To claim this benefit, submit VA Form 21-8940, Veteran’s Application for Increased Compensation Based on Unemployability and VA Form 21-4192, Request for Employment Information in Connection with Claim for Disability Benefits.
What to Know About Filing VA Disability Compensation Claims
You do not have to file a claim on your own; you can get the assistance of a Veteran Service Organization, you can call the VA directly for assistance, or you can hire an experienced VA claims attorney to give you advice on how to proceed. It’s always best to speak to a VA representative first before spending money on a third party. Call the VA at their toll-free number, 1-800-827-1000.
About the author
Editor-in-Chief 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.