The Veterans Administration is designed to help veterans access the multiple benefits and services that they have earned through their military service. These include:
- Health care benefits, such as medical care and prescription medications
- Education benefits, such as the GI bill
- Disability benefits for service-connected illnesses or injuries
Specifically, VA disability compensation is a monthly, tax-free payment for veterans who were injured or became ill while serving in the military, as well as veterans who had an existing medical condition that was made worse by their military service. Some of the conditions covered by VA disability include:
- Chronic back pain
- Breathing problems
- Hearing loss
- Cancers caused by contact with hazardous chemicals
- Post traumatic stress disorder
- Traumatic brain injury
- Anxiety or depression
Veterans are entitled to receive medical care for these and other qualifying conditions; however, obtaining that care can sometimes be a challenging process, especially if the initial VA claim is denied. In these instances, hiring a VA disability lawyer may be the best course of action to help ensure that you receive the benefits you’ve earned through your service.
When should I hire a lawyer?
If you are completing your initial application for VA benefits, you more than likely do not need a lawyer. A veterans service organization agent can help you complete your application.
However, if you have already applied for VA disability benefits and have been denied, you can file an appeal; in this case, working with a lawyer can be helpful. Additionally, if you require a discharge upgrade in order to qualify for benefits, a lawyer can assist you with this as well.
Why do claims get denied?
There are millions of veterans who receive care through the Veterans Health Administration each year. However, among those who have filed disability claims, about one-third were denied. These denials can occur for several reasons:
- Missing a deadline for your claim or appeal
- Not completing your Compensation and Pension exam on time
- Not having enough medical evidence for your condition to be considered a disability, or to be considered service-connected
- Your disability is pre-existing and not found to be related to your military service
Recently, the VA has introduced new rules to help expedite the appeals process for veterans whose disability claims have been denied. There are three ways that the VA is working to help make submitting an appeal easier:
- Veterans can file a supplemental claim with new evidence for their case, such as additional medical records
- Veterans can ask for their case to be reviewed for errors by a senior claims adjudicator, instead of their regional VA office
- Veterans can appeal directly to the Board of Veteran’s Appeals
If your claim is still denied after completing these additional steps, working with a lawyer who has a good understanding of VA law can ensure that you receive the benefits that you are entitled to. Having legal representation in your appeal case is an advantage, due to the fact that VA regulations and laws can be complex and difficult to understand. A lawyer who is well-versed in the VA system can help you navigate the appeal process, and can help you obtain any additional medical records or other documents that you may need in order to win your appeal.
What type of lawyer should I hire?
Once you have made the decision to hire a lawyer to help with your appeal, there are several questions to consider:
- Are they accredited by the VA? Accreditation ensures that the lawyer is familiar with VA issues, and are well-suited to help you with your case.
- How long have they practiced veterans law, and when did they last attend a veterans law training?
- Are they willing/able to represent you for the duration of your appeal to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims? Are they admitted to practice before the Court?
How much does it cost to hire a lawyer for my VA claim?
Legally, attorneys are allowed to charge between 20 and 33 percent for handling a VA appeal; 33 percent is the maximum allowable charge. These fees are only charged if you are awarded benefits, or your existing benefits are increased as a result of the appeal, and will usually be deducted from the overall amount awarded to you.
If you are only filing an initial claim for VA disability benefits, a lawyer is not allowed to charge for providing you with assistance; they can only charge for their services if you are challenging the VA’s decision on your disability claim.
There are organizations that provide free or low-cost legal services to veterans for their VA claims, as well as additional resources to help you through the process.
Where can I find legal assistance?
While the VA does not provide recommendations or endorse any outside legal organizations, there are several that can provide legal assistance to veterans. These include:
- Stateside Legal, which provides legal assistance for veterans and their families
- VetLex, which helps veterans find attorneys who provide low- or no-cost services throughout the country
- The National Veterans Legal Services Program, which provides free legal assistance to veterans who are appealing a denial of disability benefits
- The Veterans Consortium Pro Bono program, which provides free assistance to veterans who are appealing any case that has been rejected by the Board of Veterans Appeals
Additionally, some VA facilities host non-VA lawyers and legal service providers who can provide assistance free of charge. The Veterans Justice Outreach specialist at your nearest VA can also direct you to resources that can help you with your claim.
Ultimately, appealing a previously-denied claim can mean a difference of potentially thousands of dollars per month in benefits for service-connected illnesses and injuries. If you believe you have been denied unfairly for your benefits, you have the right to pursue legal action to receive those benefits. Whether or not you decide to hire a lawyer for your VA appeal, there are many resources available to you to help you obtain the medical care you need and have earned.
Heather Maxey works at a non-profit that addresses military ineligibility. She is an Army spouse, and met her husband while working as a Health Educator at Fort Bragg.
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