Tester Urges VA to Reconsider Limitations on Veteran Representation in Disability Claims

(U.S. Senate) – Ranking Member Jon Tester is leading his colleagues on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in demanding that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reconsider recent efforts to restrict a veteran’s ability to review and dispute their disability claims before they are finalized.

“We write to you today about our concern that the Department of Veterans Affairs is making it more difficult for veterans to have meaningful representation and advocacy during the claims process,” Tester and his colleagues wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Wilkie. “On February 18, 2020 VA published a proposed rule to limit representative access to veterans’ electronic files in the Veterans Benefits Management System. Then, Undersecretary for Benefits, Dr. Paul Lawrence, announced VA will end the practice of allowing veteran representatives, attorneys, or their agents to have a 48-hour review period before a decision is promulgated. Coupled these actions show VA is trying to limit the veterans’ ability to review and course correct benefits determinations, prior to VA’s final decision.”

Many veterans rely on professionals to help navigate the complicated claims and appeals process to obtain their earned benefits from VA. Proposing a rule to limit access to the claim file for veterans’ representatives, while also eliminating the critical 48-hour review period—paired with self-isolation instructions and general shelter-in-place orders across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic—further hampers veterans’ access to the assistance they need, leaving many to navigate the complicated system on their own.

The Senators continued, “We worry VA is taking steps that could harm the equity, accuracy, and timeliness of benefits decisions. In a system that is supposed to be veteran-friendly, we ask VA to reconsider taking these steps to limit access and the ability to identify errors and make corrections to a veterans’ case file in order to promote efficiency. Our veterans deserve a voice during their VA claims determination process to fix a mistake before it is final.” 

Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) have also joined the Senators’ call to provide veterans with the ability and resources they are owed when disputing their disability claims with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).

“The 48-hour review period is an essential feature of the VA claims process,” said Veterans of Foreign Wars Executive Director, B.J. Lawrence. “Eliminating VSO review prior to finalizing a claim decision would lead to VA wrongfully denying veterans their earned benefits because of correctable errors. Moreover, this abrupt policy change comes amidst the nation-wide public health crisis caused by COVID-19. During these uncertain times, VA should not implement broad policy changes to veterans’ claims adjudication, which will only bring about more uncertainty.”

“For over seven decades, VSOs have worked with VBA to identify and correct errors in VA decisions prior to final promulgation, acting as another layer of quality review,” said Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Executive Director, Washington DC Headquarters, Edward R. Reese. “Without the 48-hour VSO review, more veterans will have no choice but to appeal these decisions, taxing an already stressed appeals infrastructure. DAV is disappointed with this decision to eliminate the 48-hour VSO review and is concerned it may signal a philosophical change within VBA.”

Tester has led the charge in the Senate to ensure VA uses its regulatory authority to grant waivers or extensions for veterans applying for benefits during the national emergency. He joined his Republican counterpart on the committee in a bipartisan push to waive claim deadlines to alleviate pressure on veterans and prevent burdensome appeals in the future. 

Read the full letter HERE.