A recent Civil Beat story highlighted the difficulties Hawaii’s veterans have faced in applying for and receiving their rightful benefits for service-related disabilities. Unfortunately, we’re seeing this issue nationwide. The average wait time is now 277 days for an initial decision on claims submitted to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and subsequent waits of several hundred days for additional appeals.

Wait times are increasing for a variety of reasons. For instance, the number of veterans filing VA disability claims has increased recently, with the VA reporting that it processed more than 1 million claims each of the past three years. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of veterans receiving service-connected disability compensation increased by more than 510,000, from 2.84 million to 3.35 million. In Hawaii, about 15,840 veterans have a service-connected disability rating, with a majority — 11,555 — living in Honolulu County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The VA’s goal is to process all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015. To do so, it is enacting initiatives to simplify the application and appeal process and tackle the delays across the country.

In the meantime, veterans also can take steps on their own to improve their experience with the VA. The following 10 tips can help veterans successfully navigate the process:

  1. Determine eligibility. A veteran with a dishonorable discharge is not entitled to benefits. Other discharges are decided on a case-by-case basis.
  2. Meet VA disability compensation (or service-connected disability) requirements. To be eligible for benefits, veterans must (a) have documentation of an injury, disease or exposure while in service, (b) have a current impairment, and (c) be able to show their current disability is related to their service-related injury or exposure.
  3. Obtain a doctor’s agreement on the current disability. Claimants need written medical confirmation of their current qualifying conditions when they apply. Having been injured in service alone is not enough to grant the claim.
  4. File as soon as possible. The VA will only compensate a veteran from the date he or she files an initial claim, which can take up to a year to process. An appeal can last two to five years, depending on the complexity of the claim. There is no time to lose.
  5. Get help. Appealing a claim for VA disability benefits is a complicated process, but help is available to ensure accuracy, correct errors, document the claim and be approved for VA compensation. The Web link below is one place to start.
  6. Prepare an accurate medical record. Inform the VA where the service-related disability was treated, even if it was a VA medical center. A comprehensive factual record is required to convince the VA to provide benefits.
  7. Meet deadlines. There are varying deadlines during the VA disability process. For example, veterans only have 60 days to appeal the second decision, what’s known as a Statement of the Case.
  8. Check the VA rating. If a veteran has been approved for VA disability and receives a rating (ranging from 10 percent to 100 percent disability), it’s important to verify that the rating matches the true level of disability.
  9. Reduce spending. The VA disability process is lengthy, so it’s important to plan financially for the delay. Cut out unnecessary spending as quickly as possible and prepare for the long haul. Be careful to avoid adding high-interest debt, such as credit cards.
  10. Don’t give up. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals sends back almost half of the claims reviewed to the Regional Office to correct errors or obtain more evidence. The appeals process is lengthy, but in many cases, perseverance will pay off in the end.

About the author: Jim Allsup is the founder, president and CEO of Allsup, a nationwide provider of Social Security Disability Insurance representation, veterans disability appeals services and Medicare plan selection services based in Belleville, Ill. Learn more at: Veterans.Allsup.com

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