Paralyzed Veterans of America opposes a proposed rule by the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) that would require all veterans seeking disability compensation to use only a standard form when initiating their claim – a change that could place elderly, hospitalized and severely disabled veterans at a disadvantage in filing for benefits.
The VA on Oct. 31, 2013, published proposed regulations in the Federal Register that would require veterans to use a standardized form when filing for disability benefits, a change the VA contends will help streamline and modernize the claims process to ensure veterans receive their benefits more quickly.
Currently, a veteran, dependent, or survivor can initiate a claim for benefits through any form of written communication to the VA, including something as simple as a handwritten note that states the claimant’s name, the benefits being sought and basic information that supports the reason the claimant believes he or she is entitled.
The informal claims process often benefits the veteran, as once the informal claim is submitted to the VA, it triggers a statutory duty by the department to inform the claimant of the evidence needed to support the claim and assist with obtaining that evidence. Should the claim later be granted, the date from which the payments are owed to the claimant generally accrue back to when the VA first received the informal claim.
The VA says this informal process often hampers its ability to administer benefits, and has contributed to a backlog of more than 470,000 claims pending longer than the department’s goal of 125 days.
But Paralyzed Veterans of America contends that the proposed rule changes would place greater burden on claimants in understanding the claims process before filing a claim. The rule changes proposed by the VA also presume that all veterans will have access to the standard form.
“This goes against the pro-claimant tradition idealized by President Lincoln and dramatically shifts the burden to veterans who are already frustrated by the delays and bureaucracy that typify their experiences with VA,” said Sherman Gillums, Jr., associate executive director of veterans benefits at Paralyzed Veterans of America.
The proposal also would create disparities between claimants who file paper-based versus electronic forms. Paper claims, for example, would be assigned a file date from they day they are completed, while electronic claims would have an assigned date of when the veteran initiates an incomplete version online, as long as the form is fully completed within one year.
Adding this additional level of complexity to the claims process would place elderly, hospitalized and incapacitated veterans, as well as those who live in rural areas and do not have access to the Internet, at a clear disadvantage, Gillums said.
The VA has not specified a timeline on finalizing the proposal. If it moves forward with the regulation, it would take effect 30 days after its final publication in the Federal Register.
“Put simply, VA should not be probing for ways to escape its longstanding duty to deliver full benefits to veterans, from the moment a veteran gives notice of the desire to get what he or she had earned,” Gillums said. “If this rule passes, we’ll have to rely on the Veterans Courts to cut the Gordian Knot of arbitrary decisions, eroded due process, and tortured interpretation of statute. Meanwhile, many veterans and their loved ones will suffer.”
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Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.