VA Apprenticeship Program to Train, Employ Veterans to Assist other Veterans in Properly Filing for VA benefits

Veterans service organizations (VSOs) play a major role as advocates for the Veteran community, and as partners with VA, to ensure this nation’s Veterans receive the benefits they have earned. An important part of this partnership is to support VSOs as they train their advisors on the benefit process.

VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program recently entered in to an agreement with Paralyzed Veterans of America to participate in an apprenticeship program to train Paralyzed Veterans’ employees on how to assist Veterans to file for and obtain their benefits. A similar program is currently in effect with the Disabled American Veterans organization.

Paralyzed Veterans is an advocate for quality health care, spinal cord injury and disease research, VA benefits, and civil rights for Veterans and all people with disabilities. As a service oriented non-profit organization, Paralyzed Veterans employs national service officers to serve Veterans.

“The apprenticeship program with Paralyzed Veterans will put much needed resources into communities nationwide to work with our Veterans and assist them in applying for benefits,” stated Tim Johnston, supervisor for rehabilitation services at VR&E. “This not only gives those accepted into the program a skill, but ensures that Veterans in communities, large and small, have access to trained professionals who can help them understand the process and apply for those benefits they have earned and deserve.”

In a memorandum of understanding between the two organizations, Paralyzed Veterans will provide a 36-month on-the-job training program to qualified Veterans who are selected for the apprenticeship program. Most of the apprenticeship is supervised work with some classroom and on-line learning. These are full-time national service officer positions.

Pay during the apprenticeship is supplemented by the VR&E program. For the first 12 months, those selected for the program are paid $2,890 per month by Paralyzed Veterans, and an additional $651 from VA as a training allowance. In the remainder of the apprenticeship, Paralyzed Veterans pays $3,166.66, and VR&E pays $375 per month for training. The VR&E training allowance to the Veteran is tax-free. VA also pays for the training and necessary supplies.

Selection for the program generally comes from two sources. Paralyzed Veterans may notify VR&E that they have a candidate in mind, or a VA vocational rehabilitation counselor can recommend someone for the program.

The current memorandum of understanding will be in effect until May 2021.

How to apply

To be considered for this program, you must be receiving services from VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment  program. If you are not receiving services from the VR&E program, but would like to, you will need to apply.

To apply to VR&E, please go to eBenefits and click on Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment under Apply.  You may also submit a completed application (VAF 28-1900) at the local VA Regional or outbased office, or mail the completed application to the closest regional office. Remember: not all Veterans are eligible for VR&E benefits, but to become eligible, you must have a service-connected disability of 10 percent or more.

Next, after establishing eligibility, you must also be determined entitled for services under VR&E. Entitlement is based on the Veteran having an employment handicap affecting their ability to obtain and maintain employment. It is after you have been found entitled and you have had an opportunity(ies) to meet with your vocational rehabilitation counselor that you will discuss your interest in the apprenticeship program. If the apprenticeship program seems like a good fit, the counselor may recommend you for the program. Additionally, there must be a need within the local Paralyzed Veterans of America office for a trainee.

Paralyzed Veterans may also notify VR&E that they have a candidate in mind. This candidate must also be receiving VR&E services, or they will need to go through the process explained above.

If you have any further questions, please contact your local VR&E regional office

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How Veterans Can File a Notice of Disagreement on their VA Compensation Claim

If you disagree with the decision VA made on your disability compensation claim, your first step is to formally tell VA that you disagree.

I received my rating and it’s wrong

“I received my rating and it’s wrong” is a statement our call center agents hear every day. You may think that VA shouldn’t have denied your claim, that you should have received a higher percentage, or that the effective date was wrong, but the odds are against it. That’s not to say that VA never makes a mistake, but an overwhelming majority of the time VA makes the correct decision based on the evidence available. In fact, VA’s issue-rating accuracy is 95 percent.

This high level of accuracy is in part because most of the decision-making is now automated. Medical information is input by the rater, and the rating for each issue is calculated and justification is provided.

So, if you aren’t happy with your rating, first carefully read your notification letter and rating decision. These documents should explain, issue-by-issue, why you received your rating, and what is needed for the next higher rating. It should also explain what the effective date is and why. If VA did not service connect your requested condition, the decision letter explains why the condition was not service connected.

If you have questions about your rating decision you can always go to your local Veterans Service Organization (VSO), sit down with a representative at your local VA office, or call the VA National Call Center at 800-827-1000. They can explain your rating so that you can decide what to do next.

If you’ve reviewed the claim decision and still think VA is wrong, you should provide additional evidence to support your condition(s) with your NOD. The claim decision becomes certified after 30 days, but it isn’t final until one year after the date of the decision. You can file a Notice of Disagreement at any time up to one year from the date of decision.

Submitting the Notice of Disagreement

To file the NOD, submit the VA-Form 21-0958, Notice of Disagreement that was included with your claim decision. This is your chance to tell VA how you feel the decision is wrong. If you don’t feel confident enough to do this on your own, your VSO can help you.

The NOD form contains blocks for each issue of contention (the medical conditions for which you filed the claim), for example, knee condition or kidney stones. Only list the conditions on the NOD where you disagree with the rating. For example, if you were rated for three conditions and only disagree with one decision, only list the decision you disagree with. Then check the block indicating what you disagree with (service connection, the rating level, or effective date).

The most important section is the narrative to explain why you feel VA incorrectly decided your claim. Don’t leave this blank. It’s entirely possible that VA missed something, and if you don’t point it out, VA will never know. Tell your story, but be clear and concise. If you need more space, add additional pages and documentation, such as private medical records, to make your point.

As explained above, there are three primary issues with your claim decision that you can disagree with: service connection, effective date and evaluation of disability (rating percentage). There is also an option for “other” if these are not appropriate.

  • Service Connection: If your claim came back “not service-connected,” explain why you think the condition should have been service connected. Was it first diagnosed in service? Was there an injury in service? Is this a condition that was caused or aggravated by a service-connected condition? For example, a service-connected knee condition can lead to back strain. The back issues are then secondary to the knee condition and can be service connected. Be specific and provide the date of the initial injury or illness if possible. That helps the rater find the documentation needed in your service treatment or personnel records. If you have copies of official documentation that prove an event happened in service, for example the write-up for a medal, attach a copy. Most illnesses are compensable if diagnosed within a year of leaving active duty. You may have to include private treatment records to prove this. Buddy statements can provide additional evidence. If there is no connection between your illness and your time in service, VA can’t legally provide benefits.
  • Effective Date of Award: Usually the date of award is the date of claim for that specific issue, but there are instances where the date could be earlier. Some of these include, the date after your discharge for claims filed within a year of leaving active duty; date an Intent to File was received by the VA; or the date of diagnosis or eligibility for a higher level of compensation for increases. Your local Veterans Service Organization can help you determine if the effective date should have been earlier.
  • Evaluation of Disability: The most common area of disagreement is the evaluation of disability. The rating levels are determined by law and are based on your symptoms. In your claim decision letter, look for the description of the rating and the associated legal reference. This reference leads to a listing that shows what symptoms match the rating level for your condition. If you have documented symptoms or test results from your doctor that show you should be in a higher rating level, explain this in your narrative and add copies of the documentation to your submission.

You may want to read over the Schedule for Rating Disabilities (38 CFR, Part 1), which provides all of the information on how claims are rated, how VA math works (38 CFR, Part 1, Section 4.25), and how percentages are based on your symptoms (38CFR, Part 1, Subpart B). Warning: the CFR is dense with legalese and medical information, and it’s why we recommend you ask a VSO for assistance.

If your symptoms don’t meet the next higher rating level, VA cannot increase your rating. In this case, you are better off keeping the current rating, and if your symptoms worsen, you can always file a claim for an increase later.

The NOD also asks you to make a choice between the Decision Review Officer (DRO) process, or the traditional appellate review process.

In the DRO review, an experienced rater will conduct an in-depth review of your claim and any new evidence that you provide. The DRO may schedule you for an additional compensation and pension exam (C&P), or contact you with follow up questions.

In the traditional appellate process, a VA rating specialist will review the prior rating and any new evidence to see if a clear and unmistakable error (CUE) was made on the previous decision.

In both processes, a new decision can be made based upon the evidence of record. If you are uncertain about which option is best for you, check with your VSO for advice.

So what happens next?

After the DRO reviews your file, NOD, and any new evidence, they will make a decision. They may either provide a new rating or continue the current rating decision. Then, you will receive a Statement of the Case that describes the information that was reviewed and how the DRO came to their decision.

If you disagree with the new decision, the next step would be to file a VA Form 9 and appeal to the Board of Veterans Appeals. Depending on the complexity of your case, the formal appeal process can take several years (and every time you submit new evidence before a decision increases that wait). It is much better to ensure you provide all of the information and evidence to tell your story during the NOD phase since it will resolve your issue the fastest.

VA Compensation 101: What Exactly is VA Compensation?

As a social media administrator for VA’s Benefits Administration, I read thousands of comments (yep, all of them) each week from thousands of people scattered across the country. It’s no surprise that the most-talked about VA benefit is VA compensation, but it is sometimes surprising that the words we use to talk about this benefit are different from the words used by those in our social media community. Even more surprising is that many don’t fully understand the intent, purpose or process behind this benefit.

That’s on us, I guess, that we need to reach more of you to better explain what compensation ishow it works, and who can get it. In general terms, this blog intends to do just that. Or, more loosely: here’s the skinny, the straight talk, with no PR, no spin, no BS.

Ready?

So, what is compensation?

It’s money, obviously. But there’s more to it than that. People often say it’s their “monthly check,” their “service-connected payment,” “their disability payment,” or even simply their “benefits.” These are actual words I often see, but even they don’t effectively describe what compensation is, nor do they accurately portray which specific benefit—among dozens VBA administers—they’re referring to.

There are several types of VA compensation, but I’ve learned that most people are most often referring to disability compensation. When referring to disability compensation, people most often say “my claim,” “my money,” “my benefits,” or “my check.” Sometimes they even say “my pension,” which is, itself, an entirely different and unrelated VA benefit.

Alright, I’ve dragged you along long enough, What IS VA compensation?

  • First of all, it’s taxpayer money. Every year, VA makes a budget request for the following year. In simple terms for just VBA, we look at what we’re currently paying to administer VA benefits, including how much we’re paying in compensation to the millions of Veterans on the rolls, then we analyze how much more we’ll need based on many factors, mostly that there are more Veterans now accessing and receiving and applying to more VA benefits. However, VA’s budget does not limit what we can pay in benefits.
  • Secondly, to safeguard taxpayer money, disability compensation is a process. There are federal laws that govern how we, the VBA, can administer it. This is a protection to the taxpayer to prevent abuse and fraud.
  • Next, maybe most importantly—and the part you care about most: VA disability compensation is a tax-free, monthly payment to eligible Veterans for the injuries and medical conditions they incurred/acquired/caught/received or aggravated while in active military service.
  • But VA compensation is also an acknowledgement. An acknowledgement implies acceptance from the federal government that what happened to you in service can or may affect you after service. And that’s a broad, vague statement. Thus, VA compensation makes up for the potential loss of civilian wages or civilian working time you’d miss as a result of, or for tending to (appointments, etc.), your injuries/medical conditions. It’s basically the government saying, “Hey, thanks for your service. You sacrificed your health for America, so we accept that your reduced health may impact your ability to live as comfortably as you would had you not gotten hurt/sick.”
  • Lastly, VA compensation is not income. I’m going to say that again: VA compensation is not income. It is not a replacement or substitution for civilian employment, and it is not a military retirement. Except in uncommon situations, VA does not pay you to not find or hold civilian employment. Compensation makes up for; it doesn’t replace.

Those are the basics. That’s what it is. In my next blog, I’m going to lay it straight for the questions that would logically follow: Who is eligible, How does it work, and What do I need to do? If you like this approach and you want to see more blogs like it, shoot me some suggestions in the comments below, or hit me up on the VBA Facebook page where I chat with Veterans everyday.