The VA benefits claims process can be long and confusing. The VA disability process has many more layers than Social Security Disability Benefits where the only questions are—are you insured through the system and do your disabilities keep you from working.. First, you have to show that you are a veteran who is eligible for disability benefits. Next, you must show that you have a current disability that is related to your active duty service. Then, you have to show the severity of that current disability. Finally, you must show what the correct effective date for the benefits is.
So, after fighting for your benefits for several years, suppose you get a decision granting you some benefits. For example, say that the VA finally acknowledges that your PTSD is related to service. Getting a disability service connected is just the beginning. You must still make sure that the VA got both the rating and the effective date correct.
A story that I see all too often is a case where a veteran gets service connected after several years of fighting but the VA low balls him on both his rating and effective date. The VA will service connect the veteran’s PTSD at 30% with an effective date of two months prior, which happened to be the date of the veteran’s C&P exam. The VA then, overlooked the facts that the veteran filed this claim five years ago and that because of his PTSD the veteran is not working.
When a veteran receives a rating decision like the one above, he is at an important crossroads. He has one year from the date of the decision to appeal it. If he does not appeal within that one year then the rating decision becomes final. Unfortunately, a lot of veterans are told that it is easier to ‘reopen’ a claim at this point versus appealing the decision. After the one year appeal period, the veteran can submit new and material evidence to reopen the claim but only as it pertains to the rating. At that point, however, the decision regarding the effective date is final and the veteran cannot reopen that issue with new and material evidence.
I do not know why advocates advise veterans to reopen instead of appealing. I’ve heard veterans tell me that they are told that it is faster to reopen or that they have a better chance to get the benefits. I have found that neither of these reasons are necessarily true.
Most likely, if you choose to reopen your case, it will go back to the same individual that rated it the first time. Even with new evidence, it is not likely that that rater will change his first decision. If you appeal, though, you can select having your case reviewed by a decision review officer (DRO). The DROs are the best rating officers in the VA. They have been in the VA the longest and can spot simple errors made by more junior rating officers. Even if the process does take longer, it would be worth it if you have a better chance of getting the correct outcome.
VA appeals can be long and exhausting. But at the end of the day, when the VA finally acknowledges that a disability is related to service, it is important to make sure that the VA also rates the disability correctly and that it assigns the proper effective date. After all, the purpose of a VA disability compensation claim is to receive compensation, not acknowledgement that a disability is related to service.