A claim for service connected benefits can be long and exhausting. Just to get to a BVA decision a veteran would have had to already appeal the claim twice through the VA Regional Office (RO). This process can take two to ten years. But going all the way to the BVA and getting service connected is not the end of the fight.
It is important to understand that getting ‘service connected’ is really only the beginning of the battle. Being service connected does not give the veteran anything other than the fact that the VA recognizes that the disability is related to service. Once service connection is granted then the veteran has to fight for the proper rating and the proper effective date. It is in deciding the issues of effective date and rating that the veteran actually gets compensation and prioritized access to VA healthcare.
Let me give you an example of how these issues can affect a veteran’s claim. Recently, I had a case where the BVA granted the veteran service connection for PTSD. When the BVA makes the original grant of service connection it returns the case to the Regional Office for it to give a rating and an effective date. This veteran filed his PTSD claim in 2002. He applied for Social Security Disability at the same time. The Social Security Administration found him 100% disabled due to his PTSD as of 2002.
With his VA claim, the veteran struggled through the VA benefits system until the BVA finally granted it in 2010. When it went back to the Regional Office the Regional Office issued a decision giving the veteran 30% for PTSD as of 2010—the date of his last C&P exam—even though the veteran filed in 2002 and could not work as of 2002 due to his PTSD. I see this scenario all the time— the BVA reverses the Regional Office’s denial of service connection and then sends the case back to the Regional Office to rate and when it does so the Regional Office shortchanges the veteran. Once the VA Regional Office makes this decision the veteran only has 365 days to appeal it.
Unfortunately, a lot of veterans are told that instead of appealing they should just file a new claim. A new claim can only be filed for the rating going forward. A veteran cannot file a new claim or reopen for the proper effective date. If the veteran in my example had filed new claim then he would have lost all the potential benefits back to 2002. If the veteran were to have reopened the claim instead of appealing it he would have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I see this scenario again and again. Typically after a BVA grant of service connection, the case goes back to the VA Regional Office’s remand team. This team is most likely manned by less experienced VA raters. The sad fact is that it is always easier for a rater to deny or underrate a veteran in this situation than it is to get the rating correct. The result ends up being that the veteran who fought for years—decades even—to get the benefits that he deserved ends up getting completely underrated. In this situation it is very important to file the a NOD, stating that you disagree with the decision and want to appeal it. The case will then go to a decision review officer, the most experienced raters in the VA regional office, for them to decide the case. If they get it wrong then the veteran should file the VA form 9 to get his case back to the BVA. Typically, the case will go back to the same judge that granted the service connection in the first place.
It is important to remember that even though the battle for service connection can be long and hard the war is not over until the VA gets the rating and effective date right as well. The best way to ensure that you get all the money to which you are entitled is to appeal that decision on the first rating if it underrates your claim.