In the process of appeals for the veteran, there will come into play a DRO Review or Hearing. A DRO is a Decision Review Officer who works for the VA. After a Notice of Disagreement (VA Form 21-0958) is filed with the VA by the veteran to appeal a denial or partial denial of a claim for disability benefits, the VA will notify the veteran in writing that he or she has a right to have the decision reviewed by a hearing officer, or a de novo (Latin for “from the beginning”) review. Technically, there are DRO conferences (informal phone calls with the DRO) and DRO Hearings (formal recorded hearings at the VA Regional Office).
There are three things a veteran wants out of a DRO review:
- The first favorable outcome of a DRO review is a grant of the sought disability benefits. Obviously, this is the most favorable outcome for the veteran. The VA DRO Review concludes that the initial rater erred and that the veteran is entitled to a full grant of all VA benefits. Beware, though. The VA and veterans have distinctly different ideas about what constitutes a full grant. Whereas the VA thinks a full grant is whatever it is they decided, regardless of what the veteran claimed, the veteran thinks a full grant is everything they asked for. It is not hard to figure out who is right. The VA use of the “full grant of benefits” language in almost every DRO Ratings Decision that includes a grant of some benefits is, to say the least, misleading.
- The second favorable outcome of a DRO review is a Statement of the Case (SOC). An SOC is a continued denial of the benefits sought. Why favorable? In the mind of a veteran, a denial is a denial. Not exactly. The only time a veteran knows for certain that his/her C File is on a raters desk is when they receive a decision letter from them. The trick is, upon receipt of a decision letter, to immediately turn around and submit a VA Form 9 (Appeal to Board of Veterans’ Appeals) directly to the DRO. By doing this, a veteran stands a pretty good chance of shaving 1-2 years off the time they have to wait for a BVA Hearing. The average wait time for a BVA hearing after submission of a VA Form 9 is 2 years and 3 months. If the DRO commits to issuing an SOC within 30 days of the DRO hearing, there is more of a chance of shaving off a bit of the wait time for the appeal. But, again, be warned. This is not always a guarantee.
- The third favorable outcome of a VA DRO review is to get the DRO to agree to schedule a C&P (Compensation and Pension) exam. Again, why favorable? It is because it is in the best interest of the veteran to have the VA go on the record first with a medical opinion letter. If it’s negative, the veteran can get a private medical opinion to counter the C&P opinion. When that happens, the VA becomes trapped. If the VA gets a second opinion to counter the veteran’s expert, they are committing an error known as “Development to Deny”. By challenging the adequacy of the C&P exam and directing the VA to include that information in an appeal, the BVA (Board of Veterans’ Appeals) cannot overlook that evidence without forcing a remand of the appeal.
In conclusion, it is key for a veteran to know what outcome it is he/she wants from a DRO Review, whether it be a grant of the benefits being sought, an issuance of an SOC, or a C&P exam, then to go about building the case and arguments accordingly. Remember, the first chance a veteran has to request a DRO Review/Hearing is when a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) is filed. If a hearing is not requested when the NOD is filed, the VA will inquire later if the veteran would like a hearing. It is very important to note that a veteran can request a DRO hearing at any time while their case remains at the veteran’s regional VA office.