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.
If you are considering filing an appeal, we recommend you read this blog series, which goes into more details about the appeal process:
- The appeals process: Appeals and claims are as different as apples and oranges
- The appeals process: Appeals at the regional office level
- The appeals process: Appeals at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals
- The appeals process: When an appeal is remanded
- The appeals process: Your comments and VA’s plans