News

VA Proposal to Reduce Your Disability Rating – What it Means

February 22, 2024

When the Veterans Administration (VA) proposes to reduce a veteran’s disability rating, it creates one of the most stressful times in a veteran’s life.

 

 By Matthew J. Brown, Esq. VA-accredited attorney and partner at Wolf & Brown Law Offices

Routinely, our office encounters a situation where the veteran believed in good faith their service-connected disability worsened in severity and requested an increase in evaluation. 

However, sometimes this request results in a determination that the veteran’s disability has decreased in severity – thus, resulting in a proposal to reduce a veteran’s disability rating. This inclusion to Vet-Wire will explain what occurs when VA proposes a reduction action and the various rules that protect veterans against proposed reductions.

Generally, a reduction in a veteran’s disability rating is permitted only where certain circumstances exist and where particular legal guidelines have been satisfied.

In proposing a reduction action, VA must comply with a variety of legal requirements and ultimately bears the burden of proof in establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a reduction is warranted under the applicable regulations.  

In some instances, the veteran’s rating is “protected.” In these situations, VA is prohibited by either statute or regulation from reducing the rating. 

In one such instance, if a veteran’s rating has been in effect for five or more years, then that rating is considered stabilized. This means that VA may not reduce the rating unless all the evidence of record shows sustained improvement in the disability.  

For example, if Jane is service-connected for a right knee patellofemoral pain syndrome and her evaluation is 20 percent, effective January 1, 2020 – if Jane 20 percent rating is in effect for five or more years, meaning the rating stays at 20 percent until January 1, 2025, then VA may only reduce the rating if medical evidence shows sustained improvement in the disability. If VA cannot bear the burden of proof, then VA may not reduce the rating.  

In another form of protection, if a service-connected disability has been continuously rated at or above a particular level for twenty to more years, the VA cannot reduced the rating below that level unless they find the rating was based on fraud. This 20-year protection includes ratings levels that are assigned retroactively because a previous final decision is revised based on a finding of clear and unmistakable error (CUE).  

If you need assistance with appealing issues in your Rating Decision, reach out to our team at Wolf & Brown Law Offices to schedule a free consultation so we may evaluate your case.

Read more on the NJ Vet-Wire

 

Relevant pages: NJ Vet-Wire; Veterans Disability

Categories: VA Disability, Vet-Wire

Author: Wolf & Brown Law Offices





The PACT Act: Are you Eligible?



The PACT Act creates presumptions that make it easier for veterans and their survivors to become entitled to service-connected disability and death benefits.

 

 By Matthew J. Brown, Esq. VA-accredited attorney and partner at Wolf & Brown Law Offices

On August 10, 2022, the President signed into law the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022.

The PACT Act creates presumptions that make it easier for veterans and their survivors to become entitled to service-connected disability and death benefits. Specifically, in relation to Veteran’s disability compensation, the PACT Act added a number of presumptive disabilities for veterans who were either exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and/or other toxic substances.

For background, burn pits were commonly used in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other overseas locations to dispose of waste collected on military bases. VA has identified waste products that were commonly disposed of in open burn pits, including:

  • Chemicals, paint, medical and human waste
  • Metal and aluminum cans
  • Munitions and unexploded ordnance
  • Petroleum and lubricant products
  • Plastics, rubber, wood, and food waste

VA has noted “exposure to smoke created by burning these materials may cause irritation and burning of eyes or throat, coughing, breathing difficulties, skin itching or rashes.”

For Gulf War era and post 9/11 veterans who were exposed to burn pits during active-duty service, the following cancers are now considered presumptive:

  • Brain cancer
  • Gastrointestinal cancer of any type
  • Glioblastoma
  • Head cancer of any type
  • Kidney cancer
  • Lymphoma of any type
  • Melanoma
  • Neck cancer of any type
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Reproductive cancer of any type
  • Respiratory (breathing-related) cancer of any type

Additionally, the following illnesses are now also considered presumptive if a veteran was exposed to burn pits:

  • Asthma that was diagnosed after service 
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Chronic rhinitis
  • Chronic sinusitis
  • Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis
  • Emphysema
  • Granulomatous disease
  • Interstitial lung disease (ILD)
  • Pleuritis
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Sarcoidosis

To be eligible for presumptive service-connection for any of these disabilities, or more specifically to be found as having a presumption of exposure, a Veteran must have served in any of the following locations and time periods:

On or after September 11, 2001, in any of these locations:

  • Afghanistan 
  • Djibouti
  • Egypt
  • Jordan
  • Lebanon
  • Syria
  • Uzbekistan
  • Yemen
  • The airspace above any of these locations

On or after August 2, 1990, in any of these locations:

  • Bahrain
  • Iraq
  • Kuwait
  • Oman
  • Qatar
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Somalia
  • The United Arab Emirates (UAE)
  • The airspace above any of these locations

However, it is paramount to understand that if you have a medical condition that is not listed as presumptive under the PACT Act, that does mean your condition is unrelated to your presumed exposure.  Specifically, a veteran’s presumed exposure to burn pits has been shown to contribute to a broad range of illnesses including neurological, cognition, respiratory, immune system, skin, and cancers.  

If you have a medical condition that you believe is related to your burn pit exposure, reach out to our team at Wolf & Brown Law Offices to schedule a free consultation so we may evaluate your case.

Read more on the NJ Vet-Wire

 

Relevant pages: NJ Vet-Wire; Veterans Disability

Categories: VA Disability, Vet-Wire

Author: Wolf & Brown Law Offices





VA authorizes “fast-track” disability benefits for Agent Orange

February 12, 2024

According to Military Times, “The move represents another major expansion of toxic exposure benefits for veterans, this time for individuals suffering from illnesses dating back to the Vietnam War era. The changes follow mandates included in the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — passed by Congress in August 2022.”

Categories: VA Disability, Veterans Disability News

Author: Wolf & Brown Law Offices





VA provides end of year 2023 benefits update

January 3, 2024

According to the VA, Veterans have “applied for benefits at record rates over the past year — surpassing the previous all-time record by 39% … [delivering] $150 billion in benefits during 2023 alone.” The VA credits this increase in part to the historic PACT Act.

The VA also reports “Because of this record increase in applications, there has also been an anticipated increase in the number of claims applications that take longer than 125 days to process (otherwise known as the backlog), which is currently at 378,000 claims. While the total claims inventory has been decreasing over the last several weeks, the backlog is expected to grow in 2024 before returning to normal levels. We have been taking aggressive steps to address this increase and to ensure timely processing of your claims.”

Categories: VA Disability, Veterans Disability News

Author: Wolf & Brown Law Offices





GAO reports on Reserve members and disability benefits access issues

November 6, 2023

“Members of the National Guard and the Reserves can claim Veterans Affairs disability benefits. But they may struggle to prove that disabilities are service-related when they only serve part-time—making it harder for them to access benefits.” This is according to the GAO.

According to their report, the VA “approved 11 to 20 percent fewer initial disability compensation claims from members of the reserve components—the Reserves and National Guard—than the active components (i.e., full-time active-duty military) each year from 2012 through 2021, the most recent data available.”

Categories: VA Disability, Veterans Disability News

Author: Wolf & Brown Law Offices





Compensation vs. Pension Benefits: Understanding the Key Differences

September 28, 2023

It’s essential for veterans and their families to understand the distinctions between these two benefit programs to determine which may be applicable to their unique circumstances.

 

 By Matthew J. Brown, Esq. VA-accredited attorney and partner at Wolf & Brown Law Offices

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides a range of benefits to eligible veterans, two of which are compensation and pension benefits. While both programs offer support, they serve different purposes and have distinct eligibility criteria and payment structures.

Compensation Benefits

Purpose

Compensation benefits are designed to provide financial support to veterans who have incurred disabilities or diseases during their military service. These disabilities are typically service- connected, meaning they resulted from or were aggravated by military service.

Eligibility

To qualify for compensation benefits, veterans must demonstrate service connection between their disability and their time in the military. This can include physical injuries, mental health conditions, or diseases that emerged during service or were exacerbated by it.

Payment Structure

Compensation benefits are awarded based on the severity of the service-connected disabilities. The VA uses a rating system, assigning a percentage of disability to each condition. Higher percentages result in higher monthly compensation payments.

Tax Status

Compensation benefits are generally tax-free and do not count as income for tax purposes.

Medical Care

Veterans eligible for compensation benefits also receive access to VA medical care for their service-connected conditions, often free of charge.

 

Pension Benefits

Purpose

Pension benefits are financial assistance programs for veterans and their surviving spouses who have low income and meet specific age or disability requirements. These benefits are not related to service-connected disabilities.

Eligibility

To qualify for pension benefits, veterans must meet income and asset limitations, have served during a wartime period, and meet specific age or disability criteria. These benefits are primarily for veterans with limited financial resources.

Payment Structure

Pension benefits are provided at a flat rate, which varies depending on the veteran’s circumstances (single, married, surviving spouse, etc.). These benefits are means-tested, meaning they are adjusted based on the applicant’s income and assets.

Tax Status

Unlike compensation benefits, VA pension benefits are considered taxable income and must be reported on tax returns.

Medical Care

VA pension recipients are not automatically entitled to VA healthcare services. However, they may be eligible for VA healthcare if they meet certain criteria, such as being catastrophically disabled.

 

In summary, compensation benefits are designed for veterans with service-connected disabilities and provide financial support based on the severity of those disabilities. Pension benefits, on the other hand, are income-based assistance programs for veterans and their surviving spouses who have limited financial means and meet specific eligibility criteria.

If you’re uncertain about your eligibility or need assistance with the application process, please reach out to our team at Wolf & Brown for a free consultation.

 

Read more on the NJ Vet-Wire

 

Relevant pages: NJ Vet-Wire; Veterans Disability

Categories: VA Disability, Vet-Wire

Author: Wolf & Brown Law Offices





Deciphering the VA Rating Decision: Understanding What’s Inside

September 6, 2023

For veterans navigating the complex world of VA disability benefits, receiving a VA rating decision is a significant milestone.

 

 By Matthew J. Brown, Esq. VA-accredited attorney and partner at Wolf & Brown Law Offices

This document is the culmination of a lengthy process and contains vital information that determines the level of disability compensation a veteran will receive.

Let’s explore what’s inside a VA rating decision and demystify this essential document for veterans seeking support:

1. Veteran’s Information: The VA rating decision typically begins with the veteran’s personal information, including their name, Social Security Number, VA file number, and contact details. This section ensures that the document is correctly attributed to the veteran in question.

2. Claimed Disabilities: The heart of the rating decision is the listing of the disabilities claimed by the veteran. Each disability is detailed with its diagnosis, date of claim, and relevant information from medical records and examinations. Veterans should carefully review this section to ensure that all claimed disabilities are accurately documented.

3. Effective Date: The effective date is a crucial piece of information. It’s the date from which the VA will begin providing compensation for the approved disabilities. This date is often linked to when the VA received the initial claim or when the disability was diagnosed, but it can vary based on individual circumstances.

4. Service Connection: For each claimed disability, the rating decision will indicate whether the VA has granted or denied service connection. Service connection means that the disability is recognized as being linked to the veteran’s military service. If service connection is denied, the veteran will need to review the decision carefully to understand the reasons.

5. Disability Ratings: This section outlines the disability ratings assigned to each condition that has been granted service connection. The VA uses a rating schedule to assign percentages ranging from 0% to 100%, reflecting the severity of each disability. The higher the rating, the more compensation a veteran will receive.

6. Combined Disability Rating: If a veteran has multiple service-connected disabilities, the VA calculates a combined disability rating. This is not simply the sum of individual ratings but is determined through a specific formula. Understanding how this calculation works can help veterans anticipate their overall compensation.

7. Reasons and Bases for Decisions: The rating decision will provide a detailed explanation of the reasoning behind each decision, whether it’s granting or denying service connection or assigning a particular disability rating. This section is vital for understanding the basis of the VA’s decisions and can be used to support appeals or requests for reconsideration.

8. Effective Dates for Individual Disabilities: The document will also specify the effective date for each service-connected disability. These effective dates may vary depending on the specific conditions and their documentation.

9. Future Examination Dates: In some cases, the VA may schedule future examinations to re-evaluate a veteran’s disabilities. These dates will be clearly stated in the rating decision, giving veterans a heads-up for any potential re-assessments.

10. Information on Appealing: If a veteran disagrees with any part of the rating decision, there will be information on how to appeal the decision. This is a critical section for those seeking to challenge or seek a change in their disability ratings or service connection status.

Conclusion

The VA rating decision is a comprehensive document that holds the key to a veteran’s disability compensation. It outlines the approved disabilities, their ratings, effective dates, and the reasons behind the decisions. Understanding what’s inside a VA rating decision empowers veterans to advocate for their rights and access the benefits they’ve earned through their service to our country. It is crucial for veterans to carefully review this document and seek legal assistance if they have concerns or wish to appeal any aspect of the decision.

 

Read more on the NJ Vet-Wire

 

Relevant pages: NJ Vet-Wire; Veterans Disability

Categories: VA Disability, Vet-Wire

Author: Wolf & Brown Law Offices





C&P Examinations – How Important They Are and What You Should Know



When filing for VA disability compensation, VA may ask you to attend an examination as part of the claims process. Generally, the purpose of this examination is to determine if you claimed disability is service-connected; or alternatively, to determine if the severity of your current service-connected condition is worsening, static, or improving.

 

 By Matthew J. Brown, Esq. VA-accredited attorney and partner at Wolf & Brown Law Offices

Overall, the C&P examination has become a mine field for Veterans. Here are some tips and tricks to help veterans prepare for their C&P examinations and improve their chances of a fair assessment:

Be Honest and Open
Always provide truthful and accurate information about your medical condition and its impact on your daily life. Exaggerating or downplaying symptoms can lead to an inaccurate assessment.

Gather and Organize Medical Records
Compile all relevant medical records, including treatment histories, diagnoses, and test results, to support your claim. Organize them in a clear and chronological manner to make it easy for the examiner to review.

Create a Symptom Diary
Document your symptoms, their severity, and how they affect your daily life in a diary leading up to the examination. This can provide valuable insight into the impact of your condition.

List Medications and Treatments
Prepare a list of all medications you are currently taking, as well as any past treatments or therapies related to your condition. Include the names of the medications, dosages, and how they affect you.

Bring a Witness
You have the option to bring a trusted friend or family member to the examination as a witness. They can provide additional information about your condition and how it affects you.

Be Punctual and Prepared
Arrive at the examination location well in advance to avoid unnecessary stress. Bring all necessary documents, including identification, medical records, and a list of questions or concerns.

Stay Calm and Composed
C&P examinations can be nerve-wracking, but it’s essential to stay calm and composed during the evaluation. Answer questions clearly and concisely.

Describe the Worst Days
When discussing your symptoms, focus on how your condition affects you on your worst days. This provides a more accurate representation of the impact of your disability.

Ask Questions
Don’t hesitate to ask the examiner for clarification if you don’t understand a question. It’s essential to ensure you provide accurate information.

Request a Copy of the Exam Report
After the examination, request a copy of the examiner’s report. Review it carefully to ensure it accurately reflects your condition and the information you provided.

Remember that C&P examinations are intended to provide an objective assessment of your condition. By being well-prepared, honest, and organized, you can increase your chances of a fair and accurate evaluation that supports your disability claim.

 

Read more on the NJ Vet-Wire

 

Relevant pages: NJ Vet-Wire; Veterans Disability

Categories: VA Disability, Vet-Wire

Author: Wolf & Brown Law Offices





“Glitch” blamed for delaying veterans disability claims for years

August 28, 2023

From AirForceTimes.com: “About 32,000 veterans’ disability claims were delayed — some as long as five years — due to a technical flaw in federal filing systems, Veterans Affairs officials acknowledged this week.” Although the number of claims is reported to be a “fraction” of the millions of claim filed since the beginning 2018, “Department leaders could not say how many of the claims affected were first-time submissions versus supplemental filings looking to increase existing disability payouts.”

Those veterans whose claims were delayed due to the glitch will be awarded back pay “once their files are handled,” according to the VA.

Categories: VA Disability, Veterans Disability News

Author: Wolf & Brown Law Offices





VA launches new Veteran Privacy website

August 10, 2023

According to the VA, the new website is an improvement on a previous iteration and will make it easier for Veterans to access privacy information and tools, such as:

  • Report a privacy complaint
  • Report suspected identity theft
  • Submit a FOIA request
  • Find a System of Records Notice
  • Get VA benefits fraud prevention tips
  • View VA policies on privacy
  • Access and download Fact Sheets on protecting your identity and privacy
  • Keep updated on VA’s SSN reduction activities
  • Learn from frequently asked privacy-related questions

Categories: VA Disability, Veterans Disability News

Author: Wolf & Brown Law Offices