The VA has a duty to assist veterans in developing their claims. The VA benefits system was designed to be a non-adversarial, veteran-friendly system. Ideally, this would mean that veterans would never even need a lawyer to fight for their disability benefits. Too many times, however, we find that the VA has not satisfied its responsibility to help veterans with their cases. It can be a mistake to rely solely on the VA’s assistance to develop your claim.
One part of the VA’s duty to assist includes helping veterans obtain records, including service personnel and medical records as well as current VA and private medical records. The VA’s duty to assist in gathering records arises from the simple fact that the government is often in a much better position to obtain certain evidence than is the veteran. For instance, the government has knowledge about the whereabouts of certain records and has access to records that many veterans may not know how to obtain on their own. That is not to say that veterans should not make the attempt to get their own records—we often use private researchers to obtain such records with great success. While the VA is required to help veterans in obtaining their personnel and service medical records, all too often we see claims files where the VA either did not even bother to request the complete records or did not put forth the best efforts in following up on those records. Ultimately, it is the veteran, and not the VA, who is hurt if his or her records are not found.
It is also very important to make sure that the VA has all of the necessary information so that VA can make the appropriate requests. The veteran should provide the VA with all of the information he has available about his time and place of service as well as the in-service circumstances leading to the veteran’s disability. The VA may use a veteran’s failure to provide such information as an excuse for not assisting that veteran any further with his or her claim.
The VA’s duty to assist also makes the VA responsible for providing veterans with medical examinations when such examinations are necessary for a veteran to prove his or her case. In order for the VA’s duty to be triggered, the veteran must first satisfy a minimum standard consisting of showing that some event did happen to the veteran in service, that the veteran now has a current disability, and that there is at least some indication that the event in service is related to the current disability. If a veteran can meet that threshold requirement, the VA is required to assist the veteran by providing an examination.
Again, however, it is not always a good idea to rely solely on the VA to provide supportive medical evidence. We find that veterans often obtain better results when they are able to provide the VA with medical opinions from private doctors rather than relying on the medical opinions that the VA provides.
We are able to have the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims overturn many of the VA’s decisions based on the VA’s failure to properly assist veterans. You can save yourself the time and aggravation of an appeal to the Court, however, by making sure that the proper evidence gets into your claims file in the first place—with or without the VA’s assistance.