The road to VA compensation benefits can be long and confusing to say the least. With the VA implementing new rules and regulations as it grows from infancy to adolescence, changes are sometimes happening too fast to keep up pace.
Most recently, during a NOVA (National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates) conference held in April 2013, Thomas J. Murphy, Director of the Compensation and Pension Service for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), informed attendees that VBMS – Veterans Benefit Management System – would be up and operating in most regional offices by the end of 2013, and that 30 regional offices were already operating under this new system. This new electronic system is hoped to reduce overall processing time for VA claims. However, based on data from the Center for Investigative Reporting, the current (as of 5/28/13) average that a veteran waits in St. Petersburg, Florida, for the government to respond to his or her claim is 334 days. This report notes an increase in wait time by 64% in the prior 3.9 years. One can only hope that this system improves with the implementation of the VBMS. But in the meantime, you have to navigate the VA system with such accuracy as to not expose yourself to further delay. This post and my subsequent posts are intended to help veterans understand the claims process in simple terms to facilitate the journey.
Let’s start from the beginning, compensation is a monthly payment made to a veteran because of a service-connected disability rated at 10% or more disabling or having combined zero percent ratings which may be paid at the 10% rate. Yes, the VA may approve a claim for compensation based on one or more of the qualified impairments, but they can rate it at 0%, and even some disabilities rated at 10% can be considered non-compensable.
Service-connected disability compensation refers to those disabilities that VA has determined to be related to military service. Veterans can also receive compensation for disabilities that existed prior to enlistment that are aggravated, or made worse, as a result of military service. The compensable disability list of disorders is long and ranges from the musculoskeletal system, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, to neurological and mental disorders. Depending on the disability involved, the VA will assign a rating from zero percent to as much as 100 percent.
Disability compensation is one of the many benefits that veterans may be entitled to receive through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Disability compensation is considered a “key” to other VA benefits. That is, the veteran must be receiving or entitled to receive disability compensation in order to be eligible for other benefits, such as vocational rehabilitation.
Monthly disability compensation payments are how the government makes restitution to veterans who are disabled because of their military service.
Every claim for compensation requires certain documentation and evidence to complete the claim properly. In order to file for a claim for compensation you have to prove that you are a qualified veteran. A veteran is a person released from active duty from the Armed Forces of the United States under conditions other than dishonorable and includes a person who died on active duty.
VA must verify the veteran’s service dates and character of service before any original claim can be processed. This means that the veteran should provide proof of service dates and branch of service. At the time of separation from service, veterans are given a DD Form 214, Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty. The DD Form 214 has been issued by all military services since January 1, 1950. This is the most commonly used proof of service.
However, if the veteran does not have a DD Form 214 or equivalent, he or she should submit any proof of service that they may have. There are some older versions of separation document that may be submitted as proof of service. One of these forms is a DD Form 53, Enlisted Record and Report of Honorable Separation. Veterans with service before 1950 did not receive a DD Form 214. Army veterans received WDAGO 53-98. Navy personnel received the NAVPERS Form 553.
Regardless of the actual form the veteran uses, the important part about a separation document is that it contains:
- Veteran’s full name
- Branch of service
- Date of entry
- Date of separation
- Character of discharge
The DD Form 214, or equivalent, should be an original or a certified copy. Copies that are notarized by a notary public are NOT certified documents. Recently, VA changed its requirements to have certified copies of supporting documentation. Currently, the only documentation that must be an original or certified copy is the DD Form 214. Also, VA might require a certified copy on an individual basis if a copied document is suspected as being invalid.
If you only have an uncertified copy, it may be sent as an informational copy. This helps speed up the verification process; however, it cannot be used to verify service. This uncertified document will be used to request verification of service from the service department.
An original claim (for the purpose of this post) is the first claim a veteran files for disability compensation.
An original claim must be filed on VA Form 21-526EZ. There is no need to complete this form if the veteran decides to claim service connection for additional disabilities at a later date, or if the veteran files a claim for increased compensation.
Once VA has made a decision on a veteran’s original claim, and the decision has become final, the veteran may later file additional claims.
You are now more familiar with the first steps a veteran needs to take in order to apply for disability compensation: Complete VA Form 21-526, submit necessary documentation, to include DD Form 214.
In our next post we will discuss where to send application materials, service medical records, and new and reopened claims.