Some of the changes the Department of Veterans Affairs has made to its processing of disability claims and appeals in recent years make little to no sense, even to many of the VA Regional Office officials who I speak with by phone every day. In particular, countless VA employees have told me how confounding and silly they find the agency’s new policy of boxing up case-related mail – when it is received at one of the VA’s 50-plus Regional Offices – and physically mailing it to one of two Evidence Intake Centers (Wisconsin and Georgia), where the mail waits in a long queue to be scanned into the VA’s online system.
In many instances, struggling veterans who are suffering from physical or mental illness causing unemployability (T.D.I.U.) are trying to submit disability claims, evidence in support of claims, or simply inquire into the status of their claims or appeals, and the mail they send to their local VA is literally put in a box before anyone at the veteran’s Regional Office takes a look at it. Whether sent by fax or mail, off it goes – often being shipped thousands of miles – to wait for scanning at an Evidence Intake Center, waiting in a scanning queue for at least two or three weeks but often several months.
Recently, a veteran our office represents needed to cancel his VA hearing the morning it was scheduled, as he was in the process of obtaining an expert report on his disability that should be evidence enough to prevail in his case. That morning, I contacted the Attorney Fee Coordinator (first point of contact for VA-accredited agents and attorneys on disability appeals) at the veteran’s Regional Office, informed her of the situation, and was asked to fax her a letter canceling the hearing, explaining the situation, and asking for an extension to submit evidence. She assured me that the situation was normal and more than acceptable, and after faxing the letter directly to the appeals team at the AFC’s Regional Office, I in turn assured the veteran the extension was not a problem.
A few weeks later, however, our office received a decision from his Regional Office stating that his claim had been denied (on the day of the hearing) because he was a “no show” at the hearing. Although I had faxed the letter of explanation directly to the Regional Office, as the AFC had requested, before the hearing was to take place, and had a fax receipt proving it, she claimed that the appeals team never received it because once the fax went through to the appeals team it was put in a box, without anyone glancing at the letter’s contents, and shipped to the applicable Evidence Intake Center.
The situation in question is not a problem for the veteran, as once his expert report is completed our office will submit it to the Regional Office along with his appeal of VA’s erroneous decision. And in the future we will be sure to fax all case-related correspondence to the VARO and EIC, even if someone at the VARO has asked us to fax it directly to him or her. But, as I wrote before, even VA employees agree that this mail-processing system is not only nonsensical but also against the agency’s ostensible policy of processing veterans’ disability claims as quickly and effectively as possible. Surely there is a better way (perhaps hiring people to scan documents at each Regional Office?) to process mail than to receive it, put it in a box, and mail it somewhere else to effectively be sent back to the same place electronically, but the agency has yet to think of one.
On a related note, VA’s implementation of a centralized Records Management Center (in St. Louis) has greatly assisted in our office’s continued efforts to expediently review veterans’ claims files in order to properly represent them on their appeals of disability benefits decisions. Previously – especially regarding the Denver, Oakland and San Juan VA Regional Offices – it sometimes took over a year for VA to fulfill a request for a veteran’s claims file, which is necessary for an agent or attorney to review if he or she wishes to adequately represent a veteran on a disability claim appeal. In most instances, a veteran’s claims file is now in electronic form, rather than solely on paper as before, and after we request a copy from VA under the Freedom of Information Act (F.O.I.A.) the Records Management Center typically sends a copy to our office on disc in a matter of weeks or at most a few months.
If you hire an attorney or claims agent to represent you on your VA disability case, make sure that he or she knows to no longer request your records from a Regional Office, as F.O.I.A. offices at VA Regional Offices are still taking an absurd amount of time – sometimes over a year – to fulfill requests for claims files.
Hopefully VA, in the near future, will be able to balance the smart, convenient Records Management Center process of sending copies of documents to veterans’ representatives with a more effective, timely and reasonable process of receiving and scanning case-related correspondence sent to VA by veterans and their representatives. If you have any input on how VA could improve their document-processing protocol, or simply need help of any kind on your VA case, please call the office of Attorney Sean Kendall at 877-629-1712.