Coronavirus prompts changes to the VA Disability process

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As with much in life these days, the coronavirus is affecting how the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Board of Veterans Appeals are handling VA Disability claims exams and hearings.

How this affects your claim will depend on where you are in the process, specifically whether your case is being reviewed by a VA regional office or by the Board of Veterans Appeals.

What has not changed is our commitment to our VA Disability clients. While our offices are temporarily closed to the public, our attorneys, paralegals, and other staff are working remotely and continue to meet with clients via telephone and teleconference.

We are continuing to work on our client’s cases and file necessary paperwork, appeals and other documents in a timely manner meeting all required filing deadlines.

You can read more here about how DLG has shifted its operations during this crisis, so we’re able to seamlessly assist new and existing clients. Clients are now able to sign contracts and paperwork electronically, and we have put systems in place to ensure that clients will receive their checks in a timely manner without having to come to our office.

VA Regional Offices

To comply with social distancing guidelines from the CDC, the VA has temporarily closed its 56 regional offices for in-person visits. This means the VA is not conducting any in-person claims exams at these offices.

Initially, this change meant that veterans’ VA claims at this stage of the review were being postponed, but things are evolving day by day. We received word recently that VA Regional Offices may begin conducting virtual hearings, but the technology isn’t in place for that to happen yet.

At this point, our preference is to have most VA Regional Office appeals via telephone.

Is the VA still doing claims exams or compensation and pension (C&P) exams?

The VA is still doing these exams to rate potential disabilities, diagnose health conditions, and determine service-connected disabilities. But an in-person visit should not be required.

According to the VA, “We’re doing many exams virtually by phone, videoconference, or online. We’re also doing more records reviews using Acceptable Clinical Evidence (ACE). This means we’ll review your existing medical records instead of requiring an in-person or telehealth exam.”

It is possible that veterans may have received mailed notices telling them they should show up for in-person claims exams with non-VA healthcare providers. However, many of these in-person exams are being canceled. We recommend that you call first before showing up for these appointments to make sure they haven’t been canceled and also to ask why an in-person exam is medically necessary.

If you’re told that you must report in person for an exam but don’t feel comfortable doing so, please contact us. You should not do anything to jeopardize your health or risk exposure to COVID-19. You should also inform the healthcare provider that you will not be keeping the appointment. 

We expect that the VA will not penalize veterans for missing deadlines or appointments because of coronavirus-related hardships.

The VA’s addresses this on its website:

“If you have an exam appointment with a contracted (health care) provider, the provider may still conduct the exam while taking added steps to ensure your safety and the safety of the clinical staff. If you feel unsafe going to an in-person exam at this time, we can put your exam on hold until it can be rescheduled. We won’t deny a claim solely for failure to report for an exam at this time. If you have questions or need to request a hold on your exam, please contact the non-VA provider directly.”

Board of Veterans Appeals Hearings

Like the VA Regional offices, the Board of Veterans Appeals is no longer conducting in-person business because of COVID-19. However, they are conducting virtual hearings to consider veterans’ VA benefits claims.

These virtual hearings are proceeding on the same timeline as previous in-person hearings. We have already participated in a few of these virtual hearings on behalf of clients. In order to participate in a virtual hearing, clients must have the appropriate technology, including an Internet connection, a computer, and a webcam.

If you’re not able to participate in a virtual hearing because of technical issues or because you would prefer an in-person session, the BVA will reschedule your hearing. “Veterans who prefer to wait for travel board, video or central office hearings to resume will receive top priority in hearing rescheduling,” the Board said on its website.

The Board of Veterans Appeals is also being lenient with filing deadlines during this uncertain time. Though we at Deuterman Law Group are not seeking deadline extensions unless a client specifically asks for it, we are glad to know that veterans will not be penalized for missed or late filings.

The Board says it will consider requests for a good cause to submit notices of disagreement and to submit substantive appeals. Veterans may file an extension request in advance or explain it at the time of filing the notice of disagreement or substantive appeal.

What about VA medical appointments during this time?

The VA has a page on its website dedicated to answering questions you may have about how COVID-19 is affecting its operations. While we are happy to help answer any questions you have about your VA benefits claim, we also recommend consulting that page as issues arise involving your VA health care, benefits, and other VA-related services. Information and procedures are continuously evolving, and the VA website should have the most up-to-date information.

What should I do if I have an upcoming VA health appointment?

The VA is currently recommending that veterans use telehealth services, via video or phone, for routine appointments. These appointments may also be canceled or rescheduled, as necessary. If you have a non-urgent elective procedure scheduled, the VA may contact you to cancel or reschedule for a later date. 

Urgent and emergency procedures will continue as scheduled at VA Medical Centers, although it’s always a good idea to check that your appointment has not been changed. You can do so by logging into your VA.gov account. Because of high call volume, the VA is recommending that veterans use online tools, such as My HealtheVet or the VA Health Chat app for routine or non-urgent concerns.

If you have a community care appointment scheduled with a non-VA provider, you should contact them before going. Some medical offices may be closed for certain types of appointments and services, or they may be affected by local quarantine and social distancing guidelines. Always check before showing up for an appointment, and when possible, you may want to reschedule or use telehealth instead.

Advocating for Disabled Veterans

Please reach out to us here at the Deuterman Law Group if you have any questions about your VA Disability claim or benefits and concerns about how COVID-19 will affect the process. We continue to advocate for disabled veterans, on the individual level, and as a group.

We were proud to join with the New York Legal Assistance Group and other advocacy groups in urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to implement new policies aimed at providing assistance to veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the relief our group has proposed:

  • Suspend deadlines on VA benefit claims until at least 60 days after the termination of the national emergency
  • Urgently expedite decisions on claims and benefits involving financial hardship
  • Extend access to housing subsidies for student veterans until at least 60 days after the termination of the national emergency
  • Stop debt collection activity until at least 60 days after the termination of the national emergency
  • Provide free access to VA healthcare for all veterans, regardless of discharge status, experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19

To learn more about these proposals, visit NYLAG and read the letter the group sent to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, Jr.

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