Veterans Benefits Committee Update March/April 2016

VB-1 Judicial Review: Veterans are able to hire a private attorney or claims agent at any point during the claims process. However, a contingency fee agreement is allowed only after the filing of a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) and the fee agreement needs to be reasonable. Be advised that once a post-NOD agreement is entered into the record of the veteran, it can be difficult to remove. VVA continues to seek changes in the applicable law to protect the rights of all veterans to control all aspects of the misrepresentation before the VA.

VB-3 Less-Than-Honorable Administrative Discharges: In September 2014 Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel signed a directive ordering the Army, Navy, and Air Force to implement supplemental guidance involving discharge upgrade applications relating to PTSD .The directive could affect upward of eighty thousand Vietnam veterans with PTSD who have other-than honorable discharges. Outreach to veterans from other wars still needs to be accomplished. Most veterans are unaware that they can apply to the Board of Corrections of Military Records for upgrades. VVA will continue to seek the repeal of P.L.99- 126 regarding the Carter administration’s special discharge upgrade program.We are working toward having other-than-fully honorable discharges replaced with certificates of service.

VB-5 Civil Liberties of Active Duty Military Personnel: VVA considers this an ongoing, unresolved issue.

VB-6 Just Compensation for Injuries Sustained by Active Duty Military Personnel: Active duty military personnel are often unable to recover adequate compensation for injuries that were due to negligence of government personnel. VVA continues to seek legislation or other appropriate action to secure a more equitable compensation for injured personnel.

VB-7 Class Actions at U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims: VVA continues to petition the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to adopt a class-action rule applicable to claims before the court. This would allow veterans with identical issuesto petition for relief within the court with jurisdiction over their benefits claims.

VB-9 VA Implementation of U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims Decisions: In 2011 VVA, along with Veterans for Common Sense, sought to use the federal courts to improve the speed and quality of VA benefits decisions. Unfortunately, this lawsuit was not successful, so veterans still have to pursue individual VA claims. The committee continues to work with VVA Government Affairs staff in urging Congress to provide for class actions to address veterans’ concerns and enact systemic change instead of making each veteran fight his or her own battle.

VB-10 Veterans Benefits & Services: VVA, along with other veterans service organizations, continues to ask Congress to intercede and make the VA implement processes to improve its claims processing and delivery of services.

VB-11 Veterans Benefits System: The VA claims process is progressing toward fully digitized records. Although there are still paper files, the VA says that most have been scanned and nearly all claims are now processed without paper. The transition from paper to digitized claims processing is far from foolproof. VVA Veterans Benefits staff continue to work with VVA Government Affairs to improve the VA compensation system through legislative action, administrative advocacy, and meetings with VA executive staff. The committee continues to address issues related to the backlog, trying to improve work credits, and suggesting improvements to the VA computer systems and ways to simplify VA regulations.

VB-12 Department of Veterans Affairs Service-Connected Disability Compensation Payments & Military Retirement Pay: Concurrent receipt of military retirement pay and VA disability has been phased in over the last several years. However, this only applies to those with 50 percent or higher VA disability ratings. Combat-related special compensation is also a way veterans can receive both military retirement pay and VA disability benefits (only those related to combat). Veterans must choose between the two programs each year.The committee continues to work with VVA Government Affairs staff to allow concurrent receipt for all veterans retired due to length of service with any VA disability rating. We also continue to encourage the full implementation of concurrent receipt for all levels of VA disability compensation.

VB-13 Preservation of VVA Service Representation at the National Level:  At the national level, VVA continues to retain high-quality attorneys for representation of veterans claims. The Veterans Benefits Program policies have been re-written to more clearly define a service officer’s duties and responsibilities. This remains a work in progress; upgrades are implemented as changes occur. Service officer training is available on VVA’s website. The VVA Service Officer Grant program procedures have been upgraded. This remains a high priority.

VB-16 Copy of Military Records upon Discharge:  The committee has worked with Government Affairs staff to improve the integration of DOD and VA health records to create a virtual lifetime electronic record. Providing complete and workable records has been the subject of much discussion, testimony, and meetings with VA staff. The committee also works with VVA Veterans Benefits and Government Affairs staff to monitor records disposition schedules of the service departments to ensure that important health and personnel records are protected and not destroyed prematurely. Recently separated military personnel are being provided with a CD or flash drive containing their records.

VB-18 The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Voluntary Service (VAVS) Program:  VVA encourages state councils and chapters to get involved with voluntary services at their local VA hospitals.

VB-19 Veterans Environmental Health Effects: Legislation that addresses VVA’s initiative regarding the toxic exposure of all American veterans continues as new legislation is introduced once again in Congress: S.901 and H.R.1789. All veterans are encouraged to contact their congressional representatives to ensure that Congress passes this legislation that is vitally needed for our children.

VB-20 Participation in the Process of Accrediting VA Medical Centers: Ongoing until resolved. VVA encourages its members to get involved at the local level in VA hospitals. VB-27 Reduction of DIC Survivor Waiting Period: Under Section 1318, even if a cause of death is not service connected, a survivor can obtain Death and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits if the veteran had been service connected for a condition that was totally disabling for a period often years. VVA continues to seek to reduce the ten-year period to one year.

VB-28 Removal of the 5 Percent Annual Deductible for VA Pension Eligibility: The committee continues to work with VVA Government Affairs staff to urge that all allowable medical expenses incurred by a low-income veteran eligible for a VA pension be subtracted from his or her household income, not just those expenses that exceed the 5 percent deductible. This will be included in our work on reducing the backlog, as the necessary calculations make this annual task more onerous on veterans and VA employees.

Tom Burke, Chair

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