Understanding the VA Benefits Administration
The VA is bigger than most realize. As a result most veterans have a lot of misunderstanding with how the VA functions and thus are confused when dealing with the VA for both compensation claims and/or getting medical treatment. Hospitals, clinic, Vet Centers and such provide treatment. They work under their own guidelines, regulations and budgets. The Benefits Administration (more commonly called the Regional Office) confers compensation/service connection for military related illnesses and injuries, and other commonly known benefits such as home loan guarantees and education. The Benefits Administration does not work under a budget. Both administrations have departments, divisions, subdivisions and contractors. There is a lot of room for communication to break down. So be pro-active and check carefully who will do what and when. As an example: Going to a Vets Center for PTSD does not automatically request service connection for PTSD, nor does it automatically guarantee service connection and compensation. Make the appropriate requests at the appropriate office.
Claims for compensation and service connection of a medical problem must be made to the regional office in your state. In order to have medical problem service connected and compensation paid, there must be evidence of a chronic medical issue being linked to a veteran's active military service. Evidence most frequently comes from military service records especially medical records. When these are missing evidence can come from other sources such as witnesses, photos, news stories and old letters to home. The source of the evidence is important to the credibility of it. A statement from your wife, who stands to benefit financially with a favorable decision is not as credible as your former supervisor in the service whom you have not seen in years. Such was the case of a veteran whose wife signed a document attesting his tinnitus was so bad she could hear the ringing in his ears even across the house in the kitchen. In another case a disinterested third party who did not even know the veteran or anything about his claim, described the working conditions at the flight hangar where the vet worked so well that the VA was able to award service connection for a hearing loss.
The first time any claim is made during the life time of a veteran, a VA form 21-526 or VA form 21-526EZ must be filled out. After that a simple hand written letter is sufficient. In fact, a claimant does not even need to fill out a VA form 21-526 at first. Just write to the Regional Office and they will send you what they need for documentation. This is because years ago many vets filled out the claims form and forgot about it. Once the 526 is completed, it is for life. It starts the building of your claims file or in VA jargon, the C-file. A copy of every communication sent to the veteran or received from the veteran is supposed to be in that file forever. When writing to the VA, keep remarks short, sweet and to the point. Adding drama to any correspondence only lowers the credibility to the reader, a VA employee. If there are implausible aspects of your story explain them in simple terms and then get some sort of collaborative evidence to submit at the same time.
Generally, a claim for benefits or an increase in benefits specifically must be made by the veteran with his or her own signature. A visit to a medical facility should not be considered by a veteran to be a claim of any sort even if a staff member/employee states there is one. So get the appropriate paperwork done and then sign it. You don't make claims for service connection through a medical facility. However, again generally speaking, the exception to this is when a veteran spends 21 days or more in the hospital for an already service connected issue. The VA hospital is supposed to notify the Regional Office that the veteran was hospitalized for an excess of 20 days for treatment of a condition that is service connected. In this case a Rating Decision should be completed. In reality, write the Regional Office, regardless, and tell them you were in the hospital (civilian, military, or VA) and get the temporary increase in benefits. Try not to assume anything.
Medical treatment at a VA treatment facility does not confer the status of service connection on a medical problem. Service connection is the legal status conferred on a claim that is made only by a Regional Office and only after a rating decision has been completed. This brings us to one final and very important point: read and re-read all that the VA sends you. Determine what is appropriate for your case. The VA is a very large, complex organization that often fails to communicate well within its own. Don't waste time getting angry and frustrated; just get informed.
Please see your local county veterans service officer if you have any questions. You can contact your local VSO at (218) 631-7617 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, have a great week.