There are two ways to file a VA compensation claim: print the 526EZ and mail/fax it, or submit it electronically through VA and DoD’s eBenefits web portal. Most Veterans opt for the former, cross their fingers, and hope for the best. But unless you are just leaving the military, with well-documented and easily accessible service treatment records, this isn’t the best approach.
As a public affairs officer for the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), I wanted to learn more about the VA compensation claim process. So, I went to school. I recently completed training as a rater so that I could share with you the information and tips and tricks and suggestions I learned while working with those who rate claims for VBA.
Intent to file
The Intent to File is required, but here’s why it’s a good thing: It immediately establishes your effective date for pay purposes. Best of all, it only takes a few minutes to complete online in eBenefits. (You can submit your Intent to File online in eBenefits here)
We know that it may take you some time to gather all the evidence you need to support your fully developed claim (FDC), such as your service treatment records, private treatment records and DBQs, and written witness/buddy/commander/spouse/lay statements. The Intent to File for a VA compensation claim lets VA know that you are planning to file a claim, and it locks in your “backpay” date. You then have one year to complete your claim application.
What info does VA need from me?
To receive VA disability compensation, you must meet three criteria: an event in service that caused or aggravated a disability or illness; a current diagnosis of a medical disability or illness; and a medical opinion connecting the two (the latter as a result/because of the former).
- Event in service is something that happened in service that caused or aggravated your current disability. For example, you fractured an ankle in service and now have arthritis in that ankle. Or, you served in Vietnam, were exposed to Agent Orange, and now have a disease that is considered presumptive for Agent Orange exposure;
- A current VA or private doctor’s diagnosis showing that you have a medical condition related to the service event; and
- A doctor’s opinion that the event in service and current diagnosis are connected. This is called the nexus. Unless the connection is obvious through your medical records, this opinion, or nexus, will usually come from your VA-scheduled Compensation & Pension (C&P) exam. For presumptive illnesses, VA presumes the connection between the documented event in service and the current diagnosed illness. In this case the nexus is established by law.
Without all three of these items, a VA compensation claim can’t be granted. It’s like a three legged stool – without any one of these legs, the stool will fall over. If you provide evidence of the first two items but not the third, VA will schedule you for a C&P exam to determine a doctor’s opinion for the third. Be aware that just because a doctor’s opinion is requested on service connection that that doesn’t mean a doctor will agree that your current condition is related to your service.
Write a statement in support of your claim
When filing your VA compensation claim, include a VA Form 21-4138. This is called the Statement in Support of Claim. It’s important to write a separate paragraph for each disability you are claiming. It’s equally important to explain how the event in service (be specific) affects your current disability or symptoms related to your injury or illness. Provide every piece of evidence from the event that you can think of, such as personnel records, award narratives, pictures, medical records, unit profiles, prescriptions, etc. If you don’t think this event is in your service personnel or medical records, find someone you served with to fill out a form to provide their witness statement to the event. While a witness statement alone usually is not enough to grant a claim, it can be combined with other evidence to strengthen a claim for service connection.
Your statement is considered evidence, just like your military or treatment records, and the rater will use it to make the decision. It also tells the rating team where to look in your records, and the timeframe for information to validate your claim.
Include medical records
VA can access treatment records from other VA and military medical facilities, but don’t assume that “VA has everything it needs.” Remember above: VA and military records are just one leg of the three-legged stool.
If you have your service medical records, include them as evidence. It also helps VA if you include where it was that you’ve been treated for your medical conditions on your application (name of treatment facility). You should also highlight the pages and passages that refer to your medical conditions, such as lab results and diagnoses, which may eliminate weeks or even months of processing time. Providing all of this information with your claim will help the rating team process your claim more quickly.
If you don’t have your service records, VA will request them from your military branch archives, but this can take several weeks or more. If you don’t have them and would prefer to request them yourself, contact the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) here.
Compensation and Pension: Your C&P exam
Even if you submit all of your medical records, you may still be asked to go to a C&P exam. This is not a typical doctor’s exam. You won’t be diagnosed or treated, and in some cases, the doctor may just review your records—including any statements in your file—and ask you a few questions. While this may seem unusual for an exam, the doctor is actually filling in a Disability Benefits Questionnaire (DBQ), which the rater will use to determine if your claim can be granted, and at what percentage.
So, in the exam, be honest and specific with your answers. For example, if the doctor asks about an injury, instead of saying “I hurt my back in the service,” you should say “I was getting something off of a shelf in the warehouse and fell off a ladder. There is an accident report. My back has given me problems ever since.” This allows the doctor to connect an incident in service to the current disability, and the DBQ the doctor submits will contain an opinion that your disability is either more- or less-likely than not connected to your service. That’s the third leg of the stool.
What if I need help?
If all of this sounds like Greek to you, then you should either follow our helpful tutorials on YouTube that walk you through the VA compensation claim application process, or enlist the help (FREE) of a Veterans Service Organization (VSO) to assist you.
Once you or your VSO has submitted your VA compensation claim, you can check on its current status in eBenefits (hover over “Manage,” then click on “View or update your Compensation and Pension (C&P) claim”). On the status page, you can view more detailed information by clicking on the claim date.
It’s important to note that, once you have submitted your fully-developed claim online, or by mail/fax, you are telling VA that you have no further evidence or information to submit. Submitting un-requested evidence or information after it has been submitted will cause a delay in processing.
Did you know?
By providing a more complete picture of your situation to the rating team when you file your VA compensation claim application, you not only make it easier for the raters to find your information and process your claim, but you also increase your chances of having your claim granted. Although it will take a little more effort on your part, it can pay off with faster VA processing, and will increase your chances of a successful claim the first time.
Remember, the rating team—most of whom are Veterans just like you—is on your side, but you can help them by including everything they need to approve your claim.