Today we are going to take a look at an important institution in the realm of VA law: the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA). The BVA is the second level of review for veterans’ claims, the first being the VA Regional Offices (RO). In simplest terms, the RO makes the first decision on a claim, whether that be an initial claim for service connection or a claim for increased rating or an earlier effective date. If a veteran does not agree with the RO decision, he has the option of appealing that decision to the BVA. Before the case can be heard at the BVA, the veteran must file a Notice of Disagreement with the RO. Then, the veteran will be able to choose between the DRO review process and the traditional review process. If the veteran chooses DRO review, the case will be looked at by another person at the RO before it is sent to the BVA. This process is recommended because there is the option to submit additional evidence, and the person making the decision typically has more experience with claims, so there is a higher chance of a favorable decision. The traditional review process bypasses this second look by the RO.
The BVA has jurisdiction over a variety of claims, including entitlement to service-connected disability compensation and health care, dependency and indemnity compensation claims, non-service-connected pension benefits, vocational rehabilitation, and educational benefits. It is important to note that the BVA does not have jurisdiction over VA medical determinations relating to the treatment of an individual, such as medications prescribed or courses of treatment.
The BVA is comprised of the Chairman, who is the chief executive officer and Veterans Law Judges, who are the main decision makers. The Chairman is appointed by the President, subject to Senate confirmation, and serves a 6-year term. The individuals who participate in the decision making process for each case are known as Veterans Law Judges. There are about 60 Veterans Law Judges, each of whom are recommended by the BVA Chairman, appointed by the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and approved by the President. Unlike the individuals who are making decisions at the RO level, Veterans Law Judges must be attorneys. Veterans Law Judges work in “decision teams” with staff attorneys and clinical staff.
In order for a claim to reach the BVA, a Notice of Disagreement must be filed within one year of the initial RO decision, and then the appeal must be perfected by filing VA Form 9 within 60 days of the date on the notification letter accompanying the Statement of the Case. For most veterans, when they hear “BVA,” the first thing that comes to mind is “delay.” This is because there is a large backlog of cases waiting to be heard by the BVA, which is obviously very frustrating for veterans who have been waiting years to receive their disability compensation. One thing to remember is that while you are waiting for your claim to be looked at by the BVA, you can still be developing evidence for your claim, such as gathering service records, getting an independent medical opinion, or asking fellow service members to provide buddy statements. This additional evidence, along with the fact that Veterans Law Judges are typically going to be more experienced in dealing with these claims, may be the difference between a denial at the RO level and an award of benefits at the BVA level. If the BVA reaches an unfavorable decision as well, the claim can be appealed to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and then on to the Federal Circuit.