When you receive a decision letter on a VA disability claim, the letter tells you to file a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) if you disagree with any point in the decision, such as denial of service-connection or in the percentage VA rated a specific condition. An NOD will start the lengthy appeals process. What they don’t tell you is that there is another, often better option. Decisions aren’t final until one year from the date of notification, so it’s usually far better to ask for a reconsideration of the decision if you can provide evidence as to why VA’s rationale for the decision was wrong.
Remember, however, it’s difficult to disagree with a percentage assigned for things such as joints, which are based on a VA Compensation and Pension (C&P) exam and involve range of motion, unless you contend the exam was inadequate. In that case, you’ll likely be afforded another exam, or, you can submit a Disability Benefit Questionnaire and records from your own doctor that contradict the findings of the VA exam.
An NOD must be sent within one year of the decision letter date. After several months, you’ll receive a letter from VA acknowledging receipt and asking which appeal process you prefer, the Decision Review Officer (DRO) or the Traditional Appeal. The DRO is at the local VA office that decided your claim, while the Traditional Appeal process will afford you a hearing with the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA).
DRO decisions used to be quicker, but currently, they often take nearly as long as the BVA. If you are denied by the DRO, you can still proceed with the Traditional Appeal, but to save time, especially if your disagreement is not an obvious error and is more subjective, it’s often best to go straight to the Traditional Appeal. Your NOD will be reviewed by the local VA office, and if you’ve provided adequate evidence proving why their decision was wrong, you’ll receive a decision granting your appeal, though this can take a year or more.
If VA continues the denial, they’ll mail you a Statement of the Case (SOC) — a detailed explanation of the laws and regulations VA used to decide your claim. To “perfect” your appeal and get a hearing before the BVA, you must submit within 60 days the VA Form 9 that’s attached to the SOC. On this form you’ll elect which type of hearing you prefer: in Washington D.C. where the BVA is located; at your local VA office before a traveling BVA judge, or, via videoconference at your local VA office before a judge in Washington D.C. Videoconference is the quickest, though currently in Tennessee, the wait time from the submission of the Form 9 to hearing is about two years. A decision from the judge can take another year, and sometimes the decision will include a remand, where the judge orders additional exams or medical opinions before a final decision is made.
If the BVA denies your appeal, your last option is an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, for which you’ll need an attorney.
Veterans often appeal on their own without understanding rating criteria or decisions, and this in part is why the appeal process is so lengthy, as the DRO or BVA must adjudicate all appeals and hold hearings regardless of the merits. As always, it’s best to consult an experienced veterans service officer who can advise you on the best course of action to take when you disagree with a decision.