Category Archives: VA Disability

New VA Disability “Improvement” Law Actually Decreases Assistance

assistance

Despite the title, when President Trump signed the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act at the end of August, some important assistance evaporated.  In the past, when filing a claim for VA disability compensation, the VA was obligated to help the veteran locate documents pertaining to his service or medical records to help him prove his disability is connected to his military service.

For example, a veteran could tell the VA approximately which dates a particular incident occurred, and the VA was obligated to procure the pertinent documents that might link the disability to his service (think the deck logs of a certain vessel).  This was known as the VA’s “duty to assist,” and it was a great resource for veterans since obtaining these kinds of documents can be difficult, time-consuming and costly. This duty was consistent with the general orientation that the VA is required to have toward vets (i.e., accommodating and helpful).

But this provision has now changed at a crucial point in the process; veterans can still take advantage of the duty to assist at the initial claim phase, but that obligation on the VA disappears after an initial ratings decision has been rendered. Because Veterans aren’t allowed to pay counsel for representation during the initial claim phase, it’s predictable that most veterans will overlook this important assistance until it is too late.

If a veteran wishes to appeal the partial or complete denial of his or her claim—at the time he or she can retain paid counsel—he or she will have to do so without the records help of the VA. If certain documents were not procured and the veteran is sure they do exist, then he or she will have to independently find them.

As with most political arguments, what can be alleged to be helpful can, in practice, be counterproductive; in this case, that is decreasing the number of approvals of VA disability claims.  The justification here is that now VA employees will be spending less time looking for substantiating documents on behalf of veterans and have more time for processing appeals.

This new development in the appeals process has been criticized by some organizations. For example, the Vietnam Veterans of America recently said, “It hardly seems like a pro-veteran system where an adjudicatory body knows of possible helpful information for a claimant but is not able to act on this knowledge in a helpful way to the veteran.”

What is your takeaway from this news?  Be sure to insist on VA assistance in locating documents pertaining to your military service and medical records when you file your initial claim for VA disability benefits— before you lose your right to request that assistance.

This article was written by Brad Harris, Attorney at Law, of the Harris Federal Law Firm.  He can be reached at brad@harrisfederal.com or toll-free at (877) 226-2723.  

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Appeals Process Changing for Veterans

veterans

President Trump signed the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 and it is designed to “streamline the lengthy process that veterans undergo when appealing their claims for disability benefits” with the VA.

In theory, this is supposed to help veterans navigate the VA system and challenge rejected benefit claims. It’s also intended to reduce the appeals backlog with new approaches for veterans seeking benefits.

Phil Roe (R-TN), chairman of the House Committee of Veterans Affairs said, “The VA’s current appeals process is broken. Between FY2015-2017, the number of pending appeals increased from approximately 380,000 to 470,000—more than a 20 percent increase. Between FY2013-2016, Congress appropriated nearly $200 million more than the president’s request to address the appeals backlog. Despite the infusion of resources, VA estimates that it will take at least five years just to resolve the appeals currently pending.”

Within 90 days after the act has been enacted, the VA Secretary is to submit to the appropriate committees of Congress and Comptroller General, a comprehensive plan for processing legacy appeals and implementing the new appeals system.

This bill will also create three “lanes” for veterans’ appeals:

  • Local Higher-Level Review Lane—adjudicator reviews the same evidence considered by the original claims processor
  • New Evidence Lane—veteran can submit new evidence for review and have a hearing
  • Board Lane—jurisdiction for an appeal would transfer immediately to the Board of Veterans appeals

This bill will also give the Secretary authority to test the new system prior to full implementation and allow some veterans already going through the appeals process to opt into the new system.

It will also require the VA to provide a plan for implementing the new system and subsequent certifications by the Secretary that the department is prepared to implement changes.

Finally, it requires the Secretary to submit periodic reports to Congress, including information on how many appeals are pending in both the modernized system and the legacy system.

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Could Surveying Veterans Improve VA Services?

servicesCongressman Tom Rice (R-SC) wants to conduct a nationwide survey of veterans to find out what they feel needs reforming at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He recently introduced the Survey Our Servicemembers Act, legislation that would establish a nationwide, annual survey of veterans’ experiences receiving health care, both through the Department of Veterans Affairs and non-VA providers.

The bill would require the survey be commissioned by an independent organization to gather information about veteran’s experiences with scheduling appointments, wait times, the cost of care, and overall quality of care received.  It’s based on a survey that his office conducted earlier this year.

Below are some findings from his survey.

Obtaining Health Care

  • 82 percent of veterans received care at non-VA facilities in the last 2 years.
  • More than 70 percent of respondent’s rated travel time to a healthcare facility as either extremely important or very important and nearly 74 percent indicated it took less time to travel to a non-VA facility.

Scheduling Appointments

  • More than 25 percent of respondents had to contact the VA facility between 2-5 times to schedule their appointment. But most only had to contact once to schedule their appointment.
  • Depending on the facility, 13-18 percent of those who tried making an appointment at a VA medical center were unable to schedule one.
  • Roughly 30 percent of veterans said they’ve delayed seeking care because of the difficulty of obtaining an appointment.
  • 13-31 percent of veterans were seen within a week of making an appointment, however, 26-46 percent faced wait times longer than a month, depending on the facility.
  • More than 65 percent said it takes fewer days to be days to be seen at non-VA facilities.

Quality of Care

  • Most veterans surveyed rated the care they received at non-VA facilities as “somewhat better” or “much better” than VA care.
  • The quality of healthcare services and communication with providers ranked as more important factors for veterans when it comes to healthcare. They also reported that non-VA facilities were better in both categories.

Cost of Care

  • Most veterans indicated out of pocket costs for services are less at VA facilities.

*Keep in mind that one office completed this survey, and it makes no mention of how many participated in the survey.

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Veterans Affairs Accountability Bill is Gaining Support

affairs

The Department of Veteran’s Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act is a bipartisan bill. This bill is in response to problems encountered by the VA over the last few years. It’s intended to reform the Department of Veteran’s Affairs by allowing the secretary to dismiss any employee who isn’t performing. It’s also intended to ensure due process protection for whistleblowers. If this becomes a law, many VA employees will be impacted.

Purpose of the Bill

According to Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL):

“To fully reform the VA and provide our nation’s veterans with the quality care they were promised and deserve, we must ensure the department can efficiently dismiss employees who are not able or willing to do their jobs. […] We must make real changes that put the well-being of our service members before the best interests of bureaucrats.”

Quicker Procedures for Removal, Suspension, or Demotion

This will affect both senior executives and employees. It would enact a fast procedure for the removal or demotion of an employee. The bill states, “The aggregate period for notice, response, and final decision in a removal, demotion, or suspension under this section may not exceed 15 business days.” A removal, demotion, or suspension of more than 14 days can be appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board. It would have to be made within 10 days and the Administrative Judge must issue a decision within 180 days after the date of the appeal. An employee is also allowed to appeal the decision to the full board. Any employee who wins their appeal would receive back pay.

Whistleblower Protection

If an employee is seeking corrective action from the Office of Special Counsel, the VA secretary would not be allowed to remove, demote, or suspend that employee without Special Counsel approval.

Annuity and Employee Conviction of Certain Crimes

The bill proposes reducing annuity of an employee convicted of a felony that influenced the performance of an employee while working for the VA. When an annuity is reduced, there will be a procedure for appealing to the Director of OPM. This annuity reduction can also be applied to an employee who has already retired.

Recouping Bonus Payments

This bill also allows the agency to recoup bonus payments to an employee if the Secretary determines that person engaged in misconduct or poor performance prior to the payment.

Recouping Relocation Expenses

This bill also allows the VA secretary to issue an order directing an employee of the department to repay the amount, or partial, paid for relocation expenses if the expenses were paid following an act of fraud or malfeasance that influenced the authorization of the expenses.

 

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President Trump Signs New Veteran’s Choice Act

choice

President Trump has signed the Veterans Choice Improvement Act. It will greatly expand an existing program at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Key Changes

This new bill will make the following changes to veterans’ care:

  • Allows patients to seek care from private doctors if they want to go outside of the VA system
  • Removes barriers that Congress put in the original “choice “initiative
  • Eliminates the expiration date of the law that would have closed the program in August 2017
  • Makes VA the primary payer (currently they’re the secondary payer) for medical care relating to non-service connected disabilities and recovery of costs from third parties for certain care under the program

The Choice program was created in 2014 by Congress because of the VA scandal involving wait time maneuvering at some VA facilities around the country. Initially, the Choice program was set up as a pilot program limiting when and where veterans could elect to use private doctors. Patients could only use this program if they lived more than 40 miles away from the nearest VA hospital or if they could not get an appointment from their local VA facility within 30 days.

The Concerned Veterans for America said the following, “President Trump is upholding the promises he made to veterans and we applaud him for continuing to make them a priority. However, there is more work to do. The Choice program passed as a quick fix to the wait list manipulation scandal that broke 3 years, has helped, however, too many veterans still are forced to seek care at failing VA facilities. Congress now has some time to work with Secretary Shulkin on broader, more permanent Choice reforms that will truly put the veteran at the center of their health care and remove VA bureaucrats as the middlemen.”

Congress established the Commission on Care to examine veterans access to Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare and to examine how to efficiently organize the Veterans Health Administration, locate health resources, and deliver healthcare to veterans. It recommended providing more private sector services for veterans beyond restrictions placed in the original Choice Act. This new legislation seems to do that to some degree.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has generally opposed this type of change in the VA. They have stated, “…..given the evidence of overall quality, efficiency, integration, and innovation with the VHA, we believe that efforts to reform the VHA can best serve veterans by expanding access to services the VHA currently provides. Where geographic challenges exist and/or VHA doesn’t offer specific services, the VHA should purchase services from non-VA partners.”

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New VA Accountability Legislation

accountability

Legislation for accountability is back on the table for Veterans Affairs employees. VA Secretary David Shulkin has 10 major priorities this year and accountability tops that list. Shulkin told reporters this after his speech to the American Legion, “The House is looking at an accountability bill that I believe they’re going to introduce March 8th and potentially bring to the floor on March 14th. We are working closely with House and Senate colleagues to make sure that this bill actually goes through.”

The VA Accountability First Act of 2017 gives the VA secretary the authority to fire, demote, or suspend any employee in the department based on performance or misconduct. Employees can still appeal the disciplinary action to the Merit Systems Protection Board. Administrative judges have 45 days to decide, during which the employee may not receive any pay or special benefits.

Below is a more in-depth look at what this may look like.

Pension Reductions

The VA secretary would be able to reduce an employees’ pension is that employee was convicted of a felony which influenced their job performance. The employee would be entitled to notice, an opportunity to respond to the order, and an opportunity to appeal the secretary’s final decision before the OPM Director. An appeal would have to be completed within 30 business days after it was filed.

Disciplinary Action Based on Poor Performance or Misconduct

This part of the legislation would allow the VA secretary to fire, demote, or suspend for longer than two weeks without pay any employee for performance or misconduct. This also applies to Senior Executive Service employees.

Recouping Bonuses

This bill also allows the VA secretary to recoup bonuses or awards paid out if it is determined that an employee engaged in poor performance or misconduct prior to receiving that bonus. The employee would be entitled to notice, an opportunity to respond to the order, and an opportunity to appeal the secretary’s final decision to the head of another federal agency or department. The appeal must be completed within 30 business days.

Recouping Relocation Expenses

This would allow the VA secretary to recoup relocation expenses paid to an employee if the secretary determines the employee committed an act of fraud, waste, or malfeasance. Prior to recouping the money, the employee would be entitled to notice of the proposed order, an opportunity to respond, and the opportunity to appeal the secretary’s final decision to the head of another federal agency or department.

This legislation also includes improved protection for whistleblowers and gives direct hiring authority to the VA secretary for Medical Centers Directors and Veterans Integrated Service network directors.

 

VA Choice

Shulkin is working on legislation with Congress that would temporarily extend the Veterans Choice Program, set to expire August 7th. The Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 (Choice Act) was passed in reaction to long wait times at VA hospitals across the country. He will then work with Congress to redesign the current Choice program. The goal is to combine the best of VA care with the best of private sector care in one seamless experience.

 

Other Priorities

Shulkin also named 10 top priorities for the department this year:

  • Employee accountability legislation
  • Temporary extension to veterans Choice program
  • Redesign Choice program
  • Improving VA infrastructure
  • Enhance VA foundational services
  • Better collaboration between VA and Defense Department
  • Interoperable electronic health records and improvements to VA IT systems
  • Suicide prevention programs
  • Appeals modernization
  • Improving performance at Veterans Benefits Administration

Find out more about each of these areas by clicking below.

New Accountability Legislation for the VA

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What is VA Disability?

va disability

VA Disability is designed for veterans who become disabled, due to injury or disease, during active military duty. Compensation is tax-free.

Eligibility

To be eligible, you must be at least 10 percent disabled because of an injury or disease that was incurred or aggravated during active military duty, or active or inactive duty training. A dishonorable discharge disqualifies you for benefits. The compensation you receive depends on the severity of the injury or disease.

Auto Allowance

Along with disability compensation, the VA offers an auto allowance to certain individuals.

Clothing Allowance

Another benefit that could be payable to you is a clothing allowance. This benefit provides unique clothing needs because of an injury or disease.

Additional Benefits

  • Special Home Adaptation Grants—provides money to adapt or obtain suitable housing
  • Service-Disabled Veterans’ Insurance (S-DVI)—provides life insurance to veterans who have incurred a disability in the previous two years
  • Veterans Mortgage Life Insurance (VMLI)—provides mortgage life insurance. This is a supplement to those receiving SHA grants.
  • Vocation Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E)—provides education and training to those who have sustained a disability so they can prepare for, obtain, and maintain employment
  • Education Assistance—provides assistance for veterans furthering their education
  • Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA)—provides assistance to veterans’ survivors or dependents to pursue education or training

Documenting everything is extremely important! Make sure to always be in contact with your doctor and document everything related to your injury or disease. It is best to submit a VA Disability claim within one year of separation from the military.

To learn more about the requirements for eligibility for the aforementioned benefits, please visit the link below.

VA Disability–The Requirements and Benefits

If you think you may qualify, or think someone else may, please don’t hesitate to call Harris Federal Law Firm. Our number is 877-226-2723 or fill out this inquiry form. You have done a great service to our country and we want to help you get the benefits you deserve.

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