Representing Yourself with the VA

VFFR informed you about what to look for when hiring an attorney or other representative for a fee; and/or a traditional veterans’ or state representative for free on its website: VFFR informed you that there are various inadequacies of representation issues, conflict of interest issues and ethical dilemmas, as well as the issue of representing you as a part of a person rather than the whole person with your claim by various representatives.

Another option is to represent yourself. In order to represent yourself you need to start with your tools. The most informative book in order to assist you is the Veteran’s Benefits Manual which is two volumes coupled with a disc providing you with forms, rules, rating schedules, regulations, and the M 21-1’s which are the internal rules for the VA itself. You can get it from LexisNexis on their website under Military and Veterans Law or call (800) 833-9844. An additional source of information is the VA website: Throughout you can find answers to most of your questions. Also The National Organization of Veterans Advocates (NOVA) as well as veterans organizations can provide you with additional information. Check out their websites or you can visit a local veterans post such as the American legion, VFW, DAV and others.

It’s best to educate yourself as much as possible so you don’t feel you’re over your head with bureaucracy. Do realize from the start that your claims may take a year or two for there to be a decision, and an additional number of years for your claims to be resolved. Hiring one of the various kinds of veterans’ representatives probably will not speed things up for you; however, it may increase your chances for ultimate success in most cases. In order to be the most successful you need to work all your disability cards in order to receive the best outcome. Representing yourself may limit your ability to know what your possibilities are; therefore, it is recommended that even if you do represent yourself that you consult with a representative that does know the VA system.

You need to be aware of the appeals process on all claims and stay on top of it. Failure to timely appeal could adversely affect your claim. The purpose of an appeal after a decision is not to prove a disability claim or injury, but to continue the process so you have more time to provide additional evidence. Claims are usually proven by linking an injury or disease that that was incurred or aggravated in the military beyond the normal scope of the disability; or caused by the military, or is secondary to another injury or disease that is service connected.

Sometimes veterans are provided a presumption that certain diseases were caused by the military without any more proof as well. Also in certain cases veterans can receive service connection for injuries that occur while receiving VA treatment or education when the veteran can prove a certain degree of carelessness by the VA. If there’s negligence, a Tort claim (personal injury claim) can be filed against the VA as well. You most likely will need the help of an attorney if there’s a Tort claim involved.

You need to know if there’s a plausible basis for VA claim, the VA will schedule you for a compensation exam for purposes of determining service connection and how much. Ask for copies of the examinations. If you disagree with the examination you may need to provide your own medical opinion to counter the opinion of the VA examiner and prove the VA examination was inadequate whether or not the examination is physical or psychological. You will always be turned down if you don’t have a diagnosis of the condition you allege. If you have a physical or psychological claim it would be in your best interest to receive treatment and a confirmed diagnosis.

Obtaining medical and psychiatric opinions and medical records may be more difficult for you without assistance and may affect your decision on whether or not to represent yourself. By the way if you give the VA your history of treatment, the VA is under a “duty to assist” you in obtaining those records. The VA has a “duty to assist” you with obtaining important unit records and try to locate the source of injuries or stressors in your military records as well. Sometimes you can help yourself with providing buddy statements from others in your unit and continuity of symptom statements from your family, friends, and coworkers that you knew through the years. Also the Veterans Benefits Manual will tell you how to obtain some of your own important records from the military instead of waiting for the VA to find them for you. Since you have an emotional relationship with your claim you may not want to wait for the VA to send for you important records to allow you to link your current condition to your service connected disability.

Sometimes if you’re capable, you can draft opinions for your medical provider, but it may not be as easy as you think. Magic words need to be used like, “more likely than not”, “at least as likely as not” rather than less likely than not, or possibly. Your medical provider or examiner has to indicate that there is at least a 50-50 chance. Also when you do submit a medical or psychiatric opinion, your examiner needs to indicate he reviewed the relevant portions of the claims file; otherwise, the opinion will not have much weight. You may find that many providers are not willing to provide and opinion or will not willing or able to use the magic words to service connect you disabilities or become evidence for an increase. If you’re stuck on obtaining a medical opinion you may need assistance from a skilled representative. Otherwise you will be turned down forever each time you reopen your claim base on lack of “New and Material Evidence”. Be aware of the ratings schedule in each of your various claims. The ratings schedule will inform you how the VA has rated your various claims. If you disagree with the VA’s findings concerning your symptoms of course you need to prove the examination was inadequate, the examiner didn’t read the medical records, or you need to obtain new medical evidence.

If you feel confident representing yourself, go for it. It could save you one-fifth of the back money you would receive after an appeal when you hire an attorney or paid representative. However if there are any inadequacy problems with representation it will be you. You can’t blame you representative without blaming yourself. You need to consider this: a veteran knows his claim better than anyone and the most zealous person in his VA representation; at the same time, a veteran could be his own worst enemy by not having the proper advice. Never the less realize that representation of yourself is another option for you. The number of issues and the complexity of your claims may weigh your decision. If your claim is a simple one or two issue claim, you may not need representation at all vs a complex claim.

When you read the Veterans Benefits Manual you will find many other benefits you are entitled to as well other than just compensation: it never hurts to learn. Moreover continue to talk to other veterans. By the way, another resource is the Government Printing Office. Through the GPO you can obtain all of the VA rules and regulations conserving veterans’ benefits and the rules the VA uses for governing itself. In addition read all of the information provided to you that’s on the VFFR website The better informed you are the better choices you can make in your behalf.

Good luck with your choices.

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