On October 31, 2013, proposed changes to the process of filing disability claims and appeals with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) were published in the Federal Register. The Federal Register notice can be found here. The proposed changes, which are significant, relate to the filing of informal claims and notices of disagreements.

There are two major components to the proposed changes. First, the new rules require all disability claims to be filed on standardized forms specified by VA. Standardized forms would be required for all disability claims regardless of the type or nature of the claim. VA Form 526 or 526EZ is required for original (first – time) disability claims, and a version of VA Form 526 is required for supplemental (subsequent) claims.

Under current law, a veteran or survivor is not required to use a form to seek disability benefits from VA. Rather, veterans can submit applications for benefits through informal communication, by submitting a claim in writing on a sheet of paper, a submission which VA is required to construe as a claim. Under 38 CFR 3.155  ” any communication or action, indicating an intent to apply for one or more benefits under the laws…..” must be accepted by the VA as a claim for benefits. In these instances, follow-up contact is often necessary for clarification and missing information. This step adds considerable time to the processing of claims and appeals, delaying decisions. The new rules would no longer allow an informal claim in order to expedite the process. The only way that an incomplete application would be acceptable is if the claimant files the partially completed primary application form through the VA website, eBenefits.

Second, the new rules require all appeals to be filed using a standardized Notice of Disagreement in cases where VA provides that form to the claimant. Currently veterans and survivors may either write to the VA on any piece of paper expressing dissatisfaction with a claims decision and their desire to appeal, or may use VA Form 21-0958 Notice of Disagreement. The proposed rule would require veterans to use only a VA Form 21-0958 to initiate the appeals process.

I see at least two problems in requiring all claimants to use VA Form 21-0958 in filing an appeal. The form’s pre-typed columns primarily address veteran’s compensation claims and not other types of claims such as pension and accrued benefits. In addition, Form 21-0958 does not always give the claimant, attorney, or agent the ability to fully explain why the VA decision is in error.

The new rule announced in the Federal Register is simply a proposal. A period of public comment is required before the rules changes go into effect. I urge readers to post concerns about these proposed changes as soon as possible. Written comments may be submitted through www.regulations.gov; by mail or hand-delivery to the Director, Regulations Management (02REG), Department of Veterans Affairs, 810 Vermont Avenue NW., Room 1068, Washington, DC 20420; or by fax to (202) 273-9026. Comments should indicate that they are submitted in response to “RIN 2900-AO81-Standard Claims and Appeals Forms.”

A Fact Sheet issued by the VA to explain the proposed rules is annexed here – VA Fact Sheet – Standard Claims and Appeals