A veteran who receives a denied decision from the VA may appeal it through various channels. A veterans law attorney could help ensure that former servicemembers have the proper paperwork and medical documentation for whichever appeals process they choose. In addition, an attorney could assist with establishing a secondary service connection or pushing for a higher disability rating. Securing a higher rating would mean a former servicemember could receive more monthly money.
Establishing a Link Between the Disability and a Service-Related Incident
When veterans want to reopen a denied disability claim, they need new and material evidence. This typically means medical opinions and lay evidence like witness statements from friends and family members. If a reopening application is for service connection, it’s vital that a clear link can be established between the current disability and a specific incident that occurred in service. For example, a veteran who developed cancer from working with carbon tetrachloride in the military would need to have lay testimony from eyewitnesses and personnel records that show this exposure took place during active duty. This type of evidence is called direct service connection.
It’s also possible to get a service connection for a preexisting condition by showing that a service-connected injury worsened it. This is the aggravation of a preexisting disability and requires a doctor’s opinion stating the current medical condition was significantly worse by an in-service event.
Pushing for a Higher Rating
While advocates must fight for higher ratings, doing so must be done strategically. More than appeal, a low-rating decision is needed, and expect the VA to change its mind. The veteran must provide new and material evidence to win the appeal. To do this, an advocate should start with a higher-level review and request that a senior reviewer re-examine the case. They should focus on submitting evidence that addresses why the claim was denied or incorrectly assigned an effective date. A veteran can also file a supplemental or appeal claim with the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. However, the Board has a backlog that can make these claims take longer to resolve.
Suppose your VA claim for service connection was denied. In that case, it’s essential to consider the option of appealing the decision, seeking legal assistance, and providing additional evidence to support your claim. Your attorney will determine the best route for your particular claim. They’ll ensure your appeal follows VA submission standards and contains the right evidence to get you a higher rating. They can also help you obtain a personal hearing.
Avoiding Errors During the Appellate Process
When submitting additional evidence to reopen your claim, the information you provide must be new and material. This means it can change your original decision and is not redundant information. The information you submit must also explain why your claim was denied. Suppose your service-connection claim was originally rejected due to a finding that a medical condition did not occur or become permanent during military service. In that case, you may qualify for a secondary service connection. This means that your service-connected disability caused or aggravated a preexisting medical condition. During this stage, it is important to demonstrate that the preexisting condition was made worse because of your service-connected disability. A skilled veteran disability attorney can help you establish this by using medically based evidence. Depending on the circumstances, a competent lay witness can help as well. However, the person must be credible and know your case.
Managing the Process
The process is complex, and getting free advice from a veterans service organization or an attorney is essential when considering your options. Knowing the various deadlines that could impact your claim is also necessary.
If the VA denied your claim or assigned a rating you feel is too low, you have two options for appeal. You can either file a Supplemental Claim (VA Form 20-0995) to add new evidence supporting your claim or go directly to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The Appeals Modernization Act (AMA) has introduced some changes, but the appeals process is often the same. For example, the AMA has done away with different periods when a veteran can appeal a decision, but you still have one year to file an appeal from a Rating Decision. You can check the status of your VA appeal using an online appeals tracker.