PRECISION FIRE VS. THE SHOTGUN: Presenting claims to VA
Wrestling benefits out of VA is usually a battle of attrition. While a few claims sail efficiently through the system, this is by far the exception. Most claims are a matter of wearing VA down through slow development of the claim and repeated challenge of decisions and correction of errors. The nature of this system moves many veteran claimants to approach the claims process with a shotgun, or perhaps blanket artillery fire, repeatedly throwing everything they have into the fray in the hope that something will score a hit. But is this the best approach?
Yes and no. VA is notorious for losing or ignoring evidence, so tenacity and repetitive attacks are indispensable. But there are distinct drawbacks to this approach that may not be appreciated by claimants, so some thoughts about strategy may be helpful.
One thing is obvious if you think about it: a huge file full of paper is harder to find things in than a smaller file. When a claims file is full of dozens of submissions of the same items, any single item becomes harder to find. There is also a tendency to skip over things you’ve seen frequently, so if something new is included among a pile of repetitious stuff, it is apt to be missed.
Another consideration is that VA will do nothing on a claim without the claims file. The processing of claims, however, requires the file to be shifted around to various sections or even different offices. This causes delays when there are multiple claims submitted: if a shoulder claim necessitates a VA examination, while the file is at the VAMC it is not available to anyone to work on another claim. Likewise, if one claim is on appeal at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals or at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, work is essentially frozen on other claims until the file can be released back to the regional office.
What is the best way to minimize these problems? Try to be as organized in your submissions as possible. Remember the essentials of proof of the claim: if for service connection, you will need evidence of a current disability, of events or symptoms in service, and of a connection between them; if for an increase in rating, you will need evidence of your current medical condition. Try to muster and submit these items together. If you have to make repeated submissions, do not resubmit materials you’ve already submitted (unless you have reason to think VA has lost them); instead, submit any new material and call attention to previously submitted items by date and subject in your cover letter. Always keep copies of everything you submit to VA and keep track of the date you submitted it.
If you have multiple disabilities, it is best if you can submit claims for them all at once. If that is impossible, as when a condition develops or worsens later, submit the most organized and complete set of evidence that you can. Just remember that every new claim requires development, which in turn requires the claim file to be used by one agency group and therefore be unavailable to other groups. You don’t want to delay submitting a meritorious claim, as that could affect your effective date for benefits, but it may be best to prioritize your claims, pursuing first the ones most likely to succeed (strongest connection to service, worst medical condition). It is not effective to throw many claims at VA in the hope that something will stick if some of the claims are very weak.