VA Proposes Changes to Rules On Accepting Disability Claims

The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) exists to serve the needs of veterans and their families. But recent proposed changes to VA’s disability benefit system makes it seem as though the VA is more concerned with bureaucratic convenience instead of the department’s real purpose:  making the lives of veterans and their families easier.

For many decades, there have been a variety of options for submitting a disability claim that a veteran seeking disability benefits could use to start the process.  Even writing a handwritten note explaining the conditions and disabilities that the veteran contracted in service could serve to open the claims process.

The application process is known for being flexible in starting its claims, and for a couple of important reasons.  For example, the VA counts the first submission as the beginning of the claims process.  This is extremely important to veterans applying, because it can take months and years to actually adjudicate the disability application, and once the VA has awarded a claim, the veteran would receive all the money they would have received back to the date of initial submission.  Potentially, that could be thousands of needed dollars for the veteran and his or her family.

But now the VA is proposing to change the way they have been doing it, which is the fair and humane approach, to only allowing veterans to apply online or to complete a standardized form by hand.  Under this new rule, the “informal claims process,” as they call it, would give way to the “future.”

All in all, this may look like a positive step.  After all the debates and stories over the VA’s ability to run all of their programs, it seems the VA is taking steps toward greater efficiency in the claims process, which is what we want government agencies to do.  But what’s worrisome about what the VA is doing, is that they are adopting a highly selective form of efficiency that will shift heavier burdens on many of the most vulnerable veterans.

Veterans are a very diverse population with many at different places in their lives. For an older veteran who has been homeless, or a veteran who has been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, a handwritten disability claim may be the best that he or she could do.  The homeless veteran, for example, may lack the resources, like a computer and internet, or money to use the café.  They may not have the ability or opportunity to file online or to complete a detailed application form.

Under these new rules, the veterans who are suffering under these circumstances are likely to be severely penalized, since it would give the VA more power to delay the claims, or not accept the claims that they judge incomplete.  The new application system is being considered a victory for bureaucratic efficiency, but it hurts and isolates those veterans who are most in need of help from the VA.

This proposal should come as no surprise as you look at the recent, disturbing trend the VA is making.  The VA is becoming more complex and less user-friendly in all of its programs as it turns to “technology.”  Veterans who are trying to complete claims and forms for the VA are being forced to spend money and turn to outside veterans service officers, experts in navigating the bureaucratic minefield of the benefits process, for help.  Despite what the VA thinks, greater complexity will not make it easier to serve the needs of veterans and their families.

So if the VA wants to solve the problem of efficiency, where should it look?  Veterans are very fortunate to have a strong advocacy presence in the form of veterans service organizations (VSO).  These organizations work to represent the interests of military veterans and their families, and they would be more than willing to consult with the VA.  Many of the VSO community objected to the proposal and new rules, and have other ideas as to how to increase efficiency at the VA with the veterans in mind.  The VA should consult closely with the VSO community in making these decisions to determine a better way to handle the transition toward the standardized application, making sure that no veteran is left behind.



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