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Gotta' watch 'em like a hawk

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As I have been diligently trying to finalize my new book which is to be published at the end of January, I’ve gotten a little behind in my weekly articles. Some of my readers have asked if I was having trouble finds interesting stories about which to write. I can assure you that with all that is going on the Washington… the corruption, inefficiency, and scandals, along with the seemingly never-ending issues at the Veteran’s Administration and now Obamacare…one would never run out of something to discuss.

Actually most of what I write about starts out as an email I receive from someone. Many regarding issues of interest, problems they see that never seem to get addressed, or questions about current events. With the government we have representing us in Washington, I wish I had the time to write something every day. They perpetually try to pull the wool over our eyes on a regular basis, so exposing the rascals for the snakes they are, is enjoyable and rewarding.

The latest email came to me from a cantankerous Marine Corps Staff Sergeant, long retired but still a strong advocate of Veteran’s rights, who forwarded me a comment to an announcement which appeared on VAWatchdog.org from Doug Rosinski. It was about an innocuously sounding proposed rule change at the VA that probably would have slid under the radar were it not for the watchful eye of a fellow Veteran covering our backs.

The Federal Register notice was titled “Standard Claims and Appeals Forms”, so like many innocent sounding government ideas, nobody paid any attention to it. Seems the VA is well-versed in hiding issues that can become major changes and potentially hazardous to Veterans…yup, the same Veterans that they should be caring for like a lioness guarding her cubs.

Once detected, it didn’t take long until the Veterans Justice Group LLC, jumped on it like a Duck on a June bug. Here’s the official analysis of the proposed rule changes, followed by what it really means to the Veterans:

There are two major components of these proposed changes. The first is to require all claims to be filed on standard forms prescribed by the Secretary, regardless of the type of claim or posture in which the claim arises.

The second is to provide that VA would accept an expression of dissatisfaction or disagreement with an adjudicative determination by the agency of original jurisdiction (AOJ) as a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) only if it is submitted on a standardized form provided by VA for the purpose of appealing the decision, in cases where such a form is provided. The purpose of these amendments is to improve the quality and timeliness of the processing of veterans’ claims for benefits.

The Veteran Justice Group states, “In this rulemaking, the VA is proposing nothing short of creating a fully adversarial appeals process for denied claims beginning at the Notice of Disagreement (NOD) and a “completeness” requirement for initial claims that sets the effective date of an award as the date VA agrees that a claim is “complete” — not the date a claim is submitted”. Note that the change in the rules is that the “completion date” of the notice, not the initial filing date, becomes the effective date when any award that may be forthcoming shall apply. “Ironically, in our view, the disruption caused by these changes – not to mention the direct effect on the claimants’ ability to file an appeal claims, is very likely to cause more delays and more wasteful litigation”.

Perhaps the most valid title the Federal Register could have used would have been “Major Changes in Veterans Claim Handling Process”. I guess this is like most things that go on in Washington, particularly when Congress puts together legislation; they usually title it with some nomenclature that sounds perfectly innocent, and then begin to load up the bill with enough “pork” to embarrass a pig over a bacon and eggs breakfast! So it is no wonder that every government agency and department uses the same tactics as they steadily increase their power. It this case, the empowerment comes from a process of continually and purposely causing aggravation, needless steps, and more cost to the Veteran in an effort to discourage Vets from appealing what they feel are legitimate claims.

The Veterans Justice Group went on to state, “While we believe very strongly that the Secretary, Eric Shinseki, does not have the legal authority to implement the radical process changes proposed in this rulemaking, it is stunning to us that he would try to do so under the guise of ‘standardizing’ VA forms. Actually, we are supportive of standardized forms and VA correspondence, as it is incredibly frustrating to receive 57 (or more) versions of rating decisions, etc., from VA. It is, however, quite another thing altogether to dismantle the ‘non-adversarial’ VA system in the process”.

A scary note to all this is that the Secretary is a member of the Cabinet and 17th in the line of succession to the presidency should a catastrophe occur. Understanding the mentality inside the beltway toward those who have served, it is not unexpected that they would treat us like household pets sitting dutifully around the dinner table for a few scraps, but I’d sure hate to see this guy running the whole show!

Both proposals in new rules are particularly stunning, according to the Veterans Justice Group. The first change actually proposes changing the claims categories from substantially and informal to Incomplete and Complete. As only a completed form will now be acceptable, it is only at the time a claim is completed that there is an effective date of a claim, not the actual date of a claim filing. That means if there are any errors in the initial claim, there will be delays, potentially months under the new rules. Nothing other than a “complete” claim can be used as an “effective date.” The second change to be “complete”, a veteran’s claim application would have to state the “specific medical conditions” for which he or she seeks benefits.

The VJG points out that the requirement for a “specific medical condition” is just a ruse to delay the entire process. We Veterans are all all too familiar with the “old rigmarole” and the “old song and dance” that has haunted Vietnam Veterans dealing with Agent Orange exposure…Deny, deny, until you die. VJG rightly states, “We do not believe that the Secretary has the legal authority to implement such a requirement. But, unless the proposal is changed or withdrawn, it may very shortly be the case that a veteran cannot even submit a claim unless he or she states a specific medical condition. That means ‘no more mental condition, back problem, or trick knee claims’”; additionally, “as we read the proposed rules, if the condition specified is not the exact diagnosis by a VA doc, the claim will be denied”.

Sure as the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning, a claim for PTSD will be denied if diagnosed as depression, even though both are rated from the same criteria. The VA claims this will streamline the VA claims process. Even a third grader can see that the VA’s idea of streamlining is just another way to save money by denying claims and limiting disability pay-outs. Additionally, it is nothing more than sneaking in the backdoor, regarding a well grounded claim requirement, which Congress revoked in 2000, giving the VA the ability to block claims from being filed AND later reject claims for failing to be specific about a medical condition.

Any issues or medical condition not exactly 100% specific would not be considered appealed. It is easy to see what such rule changes will mean for Veterans…forever lose the ability to have those claims reviewed, because if you start an appeal it is your duty to identify the issues and any issues not raised are considered abandoned. This is not the American way. In this country, even our criminals get a better deal than the Veteran. In criminal law THE GOVERNMENT has the obligation to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt as to the guilt of a suspect. The accused doesn’t have to prove a thing. We continue to see just the opposite in the VA System where the Veteran has to prove beyond all doubt, specific conditions or they get screwed!

The Veteran’s Justice Group issued a warning to all Veterans that EVERY VETERAN RECEIVING A DENIAL BETTER GET AN EXPERIENCED VETERANS LAW ATTORNEY BEFORE SUBMITTING A Notice of Disagreement because failing to note any factual or legal issue, the Notice will be waived and become final without appeal.

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