What Happens After Your VA Disability Claim Has Been Approved

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The Veterans Administration approved my “fully developed” disability claim– in less than three months of processing.

This post stands by itself, but I’m going to skip the beginning of the story. If you want to read the earlier posts in this series then you can click on these links to learn why you should file your VA disability claim, then what happens when you file your claim, and finally what the VA really does with your claim.

I’ve been retired since 2002, but I didn’t appreciate that I had service-connected injuries documented in my medical record. After I retired I knew enough to register with our local VA medical center, because that’s one way they get their fair share of funding. I only qualified for the VA’s lowest priority of benefits, and instead for the last 14 years I’ve happily used a local civilian clinic for my healthcare.

Those injuries eventually caught up with me, of course, and life administered a few other lessons to convince me to file my claim. By then my years of benefits negligence had turned a relatively straightforward part of the military retirement process into a gnarly research project. I learned that many veterans are reluctant to file a VA disability claim, and that it was time for me to slog through all that reconstruction while I was still capable of doing it.

I was also fortunate enough to find an outstanding Veteran Services Officer on the first try. If you’re on Oahu then I strongly recommend consulting with Mr. Ryan Burgos in the Disabled American Veterans VSO office at Tripler Army Medical Center. He patiently answered all of my ignorant questions and helped me figure out what parts of the process applied to me. After I’d done my homework to gather all the records for a fully-developed claim (so that the VA didn’t have to), he quickly entered the data with the right format and vocabulary. Better yet, he explained how I should prepare for the compensation & pension exams and he tracked the claim’s progress through the VA bureaucracy.

He kept me safe on the claims path so that I didn’t tap-dance through acres of VA minefields. He’s the real reason that the VA was able to recognize the correct answers when they received the evidence, and his advice is why it only took the VA three months to approve the claim.

 

My VA disability rating

The Veterans Administration considers that I’m 30% disabled. But what does that really mean, and what benefits does that entitle me to use?

Image of my credit union's deposit for my VA disability benefits claim | The-Military-Guide.com

NFCU’s deposit notification.

My knees are the worst of my disability ratings. 10% was assigned to each knee for cartilage damage, torn ligaments, and pain (osteoarthritis). To get a higher rating I would’ve needed to have two joints affected in each leg, or “occasional incapacitation”, or “15-19 degrees of extension limitation”. The VA rating system uses a bilateral “bonus” factor which combines the two knee disability ratings to a total of 21% (20.9%). (Military veteran Ryan Guina has an excellent description of the bilateral factor on his blog The Military Wallet.) After reading what it takes to get to a rating of 20%, I’m happy with 10%.

Another 10% disability rating was assigned for tinnitus. There’s no diagnostic exam or bilateral rating for that condition (although it rings differently in each ear!) and 10% is as high as permitted. This disability condition must be extremely common among veterans who’ve been in a hearing-protection environment.

I received no disability rating for hearing loss– yet. Hearing has to degrade greater than 40 db in a frequency, or else the ears can only detect sounds of at least 26 db, or with a speech recognition accuracy of less than 94%. I’m sure my spouse and daughter are thrilled to learn that my hearing loss is only 30-35 db for the higher-pitched frequencies of their voices, and that I’m hearing them with 96% accuracy. I don’t want to experience what it takes to get a disability rating for hearing loss, but I suspect that I’ll update this part of the claim in 5-10 years.

I received no disability rating for my claim of allergic rhinitis. I’m controlling it with an antihistamine and my nose isn’t obstructed enough. Again, nobody wants to be a member of the rhinitis disability club.

Using the VA compensation tables with 21% for both knees and 10% for the tinnitus gives a combined rating of 29%, which is rounded up to… 30%.

 

My VA disability compensation

None of my disability rating is related to combat (or combat training, or an “instrumentality of war”) so I’m not eligible for combat-related special compensation.

That rating is also far below the 50% threshold for concurrent receipt of both my pension and the disability benefits. Under federal law, this means that military retirees have a choice of receiving the full amount of their military pension or having part of the pension offset by VA compensation. A military pension is fully taxable under federal law (and in some states) but VA compensation is tax-free, so I elected to give up part of my pension.

The compensation amount for a veteran with a 30% rating, a spouse, and no dependent children is $455.75/month. Although my spouse is also a military retiree, that does not affect the amount of the compensation. Our daughter is an adult college graduate with her own Navy career so she no longer counts as our dependent.

When I filed my fully-developed claim, I set up my VA eBenefits account. It let me track the status of my VA claim and see what other information the VA still needed. More importantly, I used that site to enter my financial account data for depositing the disability compensation. When the VA completed my claim and established my disability rating, they immediately set up the electronic funds transfer. Less than a week after I received the notification letter from the VA, the Defense Finance & Accounting Service also notified me that my pension would be reduced by that amount.

Happily, the timing worked out. This month I received a deposit of $455.75 from the VA, and DFAS reduced my pension deposit from $3566 to $3110.25. My income didn’t change but my taxable income dropped and my income taxes will drop a little.

I submitted my fully-developed VA claim in February 2016 and the first compensation deposit arrived in June. However the compensation effectively started in February. The VA and DFAS will sort out that accounting between their systems, and next year I’ll receive an IRS Form 1099-R that (hopefully) shows my taxable pension income is roughly $4891 lower.

The net effect of the monthly $455.75 tax-free compensation and the offset of my pension means that in the 25% income-tax bracket I’m effectively saving $114/month in federal taxes. Hawaii doesn’t tax military pensions so that’s the only financial change.

 

What I’m doing with the compensation

$114/month may not seem like much for all of the effort that goes into preparing and filing a VA claim. However the monthly compensation is adjusted for inflation (just like a military pension and Social Security). Over the next 30 years of my life that could compound at 5% APY to nearly $100K in today’s dollars, and the inflation adjustment means that in 30 years it’ll have the same buying power.

This is the classic case of “found money”, so every month I’m transferring $114 to a personal brokerage account. I’ll invest it aggressively in small-cap value stocks and international dividend-paying stocks. 5% APY should be a reasonable (yet volatile) compounding target.

Both my father and his father developed dementia later in life.  My Dad has dealt with Alzheimer’s for eight years and my grandfather lived with dementia for nearly two decades. I’m in my 50s, which is the typical age at which people start pricing long-term care insurance policies. In my experience the claims process is horrible and long-term care insurance policies are not financially sustainable. Instead of buying long-term care insurance, this money will supplement our self-insurance fund.

If I ever use another VA home loan, the mortgage’s funding fee will be waived. It took me over a decade to understand that I should file my disability claim, and we refinanced our mortgage several times during those years. I might have missed out on thousands of dollars of cheaper financing.

 

Correcting the errors

The eBenefits account also displays my family data. When I filed my claim at the DAV VSO’s office we completed a dependent verification form with my spouse’s name, date of birth, and Social Security number. To my chagrin, someone mangled my spouse’s information: the eBenefits account showed the wrong birthdate and a missing letter in our last name. Luckily her Social Security number is correct so there was still a valid link to the DEERS dependent eligibility database. However I could easily imagine that an audit (months or even years later) would somehow decide that the database entry was invalid. Not only would that reduce my compensation, but the VA might try to recoup the earlier payments.

Luckily the solution was straightforward: I filled out the VA form to resubmit the information for my spouse. I sent that with a cover letter to the VSO who put it back into the system. A month later the data on eBenefits is still wrong, but the site also shows that the information has been received. I’ll be able to see the update when it’s been processed.

 

What’s next?

From everything I’ve read, this claim was approved very quickly. Part of that might have been using the “fully developed claim” process. Another part of it is all the advice I got from the VSO and the prep work that we did before filing the claim. (We’d already decided what was worth claiming and what was not.) And finally, part of it might be due to filing a claim at a slower time of year.

My last step in the claim process (I hope) will be requesting a copy of the file: my “C-file”. Eventually I’ll receive a copy of everything the VA has in my file, and if there are any other errors then I can correct or appeal them. Most importantly, if the VA happens to lose any of my records then I’ll be able to provide a copy from my digital archive.

Regrettably, another reason for filing this claim is to establish a disability baseline. Eventually my knees (or my hips or my ankles) are going to get those joints into the 20% disability rating. My hearing might continue its decline (despite my rigorous use of hearing protection) and raise that disability rating. The “good” news is that I’ve already done the hard work of filing the claim, and if my physical condition deteriorates then it’s easier to update the existing claim with the new information.

Finally, treating the disability condition is an important factor of a claim. (Otherwise the VA doctor might consider the problem “cured” and no longer disabling.) I can’t magically rebuild my knee cartilage but I’ve recently completed six weeks of physical therapy. I’ve learned better ways to use the muscles around the joints when I walk, stand, and climb steps. I’m using a stability ball and a foam roller to practice new skills and to treat the inevitable soreness.

 

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • Start your VA disability claim while you’re leaving active duty.
  • Use a VSO. (It’s free!) If necessary, have a spouse or friend accompany you every time you talk to the VSO or the doctor. Ask questions, take notes, and even (with their permission) record the discussions.
  • If possible, use the fully-developed claim process. Track down all of the records yourself so that you don’t have to wait on the VA.
    Read and understand the disability benefits questionnaires so that you know what you should claim and what isn’t considered a disabling condition.
  • Show up for the VA doctor’s compensation & pension exams. Take leave if necessary. Make it easy for them to understand and document your symptoms.
  • Use the eBenefits account as much as possible. Paper applications take longer to process and might not be routed correctly.
  • If you have tinnitus symptoms then claim it.
  • Most importantly, continue your treatment for your disability condition.

 

 

 

 

Related articles:
Post from One Sick Vet:
How NOT To Do It: Applying For VA Disability Years After Military Separation
Reader post: Lessons I Learned Filing For Disability Benefits
Reader post: Education And The Disabled Veteran
Reader post: Preparing For The Unexpected
Why You File Your Veterans Disability Claim (Not Just How)
What Happens When (Not Just How) You File Your VA Disability Claim
What The VA Really Does With Your Disability Claim



WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

12 Comments
  1. Reply
    peter gregory June 29, 2016 at 6:07 PM

    In my close to 5 year process to a mutually satisfactory disability award some lessons learned. I filed for stress/PTSD related issues. Mental health claims are tracked and processed far differently than those for physical/orthopedic matters. The fact that was I a mental health professional in the military, which I have continued into my bridge career, gave me a sense of perspective, empathy and resiliency to the system and the process. And hindsight being 20/20 I should have been more forthcoming and open in the initial claim process and related assessment physicals. But even a highly educated person, licensed in his profession, I still had to process the sense of shame, failure and weakness I felt. Sailors looked to me for guidance and help, and I thought I had the answers, but I knew I needed some help. And that’s the 1st lesson. Check your ego and sense of power at the front door. Second, never, never take no for an answer, work the system and process until the final response is yes. It does work. Third, though you have many avenues of help and assistance you are your best advocate in the system, no one will care about your case more than you. And at the end of the day, you will need to push the ball forward. Will the amount or disability rating ever fairly compensate me or anybody else, for their pain, wounds, hurt? For scars, some visible, but many invisible, but still traumatic. Probably not, but again the disability system in the VA is not charity, welfare or a hand out, nor is it some tax advantaged compensation system. It exists as another form of compensation, remuneration for certain conditions of military service. It is and remains a benefit earned.

  2. Reply
    David June 28, 2016 at 2:52 PM

    Thanks, Doug. I am a few years from military retirement myself and these questions are starting to come into play. Better to know the answers now. Now off to read all of the related previous posts. Appreciate you writing for us.

  3. Reply
    Ryan June 24, 2016 at 10:35 AM

    Excellent write-up, Doug. Your claim approval is one of the fastest I’ve heard of, especially for someone who didn’t initiate the process while still on active duty (there is a program that allows retirees to begin the process before their final out-process date – this massively speeds up the process).

    I believe the different time frames stem from which center process the claim. I filed in Dayton, OH, and my claim was resolved fairly quickly (I don’t remember the exact timeline, but I don’t think it was more than 6 months).

    I’ve heard of other veterans waiting over two years without a resolution. Many of these veterans are in geographic locations with larger populations, or may have filed in locations that process larger numbers of veterans. Of course, you also mentioned your VSO helped you trim your claim and proof read it for completeness and accuracy. Not having the VA request additional information or perform further exams saves a lot of time when they evaluate the claim. Claims go back in the processing pile each time the VA requests more information or further exams.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman June 25, 2016 at 10:15 AM

      Thanks, Ryan! I’m just glad to get it done. My spouse & daughter are also relieved that they’re no longer going to get bagged with handling my claim, either.

      Oahu has a fairly large population of military veterans, or perhaps the fully-developed claims process cuts out a lot of the research. I’ve already agreed that I’ve supplied all of the information that the VA would need to make a decision, so they’re not going to look for additional records.

      I wish there was an easier way to analyze and speed up the process for each veteran, but that’s the whole point: the VA claims process is way too complicated, and for some disabilities it’s impossible to expect the veteran to navigate it on their own. It’s essential for vets to seek the advice & help of a VSO instead of simply uploading a bunch of documents to eBenefits.

      • Reply
        hoyalawya96 May 1, 2017 at 1:24 PM

        Like you I retired after 22 years with two service-connected bad knees. Had ACL reconstruction twice on the right and once on the left. I received my 30% disability many years after I retired when the knees got bad enough, and never thought more about it. in 2014 I had total knee replacement on my right knee. Only this year I discovered I was eligible for 13 months of 100% total temporary disability because of the surgery. It is possible you may have a TKR as well, so make sure you file for your temporary 100% and new rating, which will take you to 50% most likely. At 50% you get your full military retirement back. File before your surgery, once you have a date, or as soon after as possible. Good luck.

        • Doug Nordman May 3, 2017 at 10:55 AM

          Thanks, Hoya, that’s great advice!

          A year later I’m still practicing the physical therapy techniques and pushing my balancing skills. (I bought a used stand-up paddling board of very challenging dimensions, and it works me hard.) Losing weight always helps, and I’ve made great progress there too. I hope to go the rest of my life without ACL reconstruction or cartilage repairs– let alone total knee replacements– and I’ll add your info to my checklist.

          Ironically, CRDP would pay for most of the expense of any long-term care I’d need. I sure hope that’s never necessary, either!

  4. Reply
    Crew Dog June 24, 2016 at 12:54 AM

    Thanks for the mention!

    Something that isn’t publicized very well is that vets can also file for military sexual trauma (MST) as part of their disability claim: http://www.benefits.va.gov/BENEFITS/factsheets/serviceconnected/MST.pdf.

    Veterans may also be able to receive VA treatment for MST. From the VA fact sheet: “VA provides free health care for physical and mental health conditions related to experiences of MST. No documentation of the MST experiences or disability compensation rating is required. Some Veterans may be able to receive this free MST-related health care even if they are not eligible for other VA care.”

    For vets who experienced MST, services such as one-on-one and group counseling are available.

    No one, especially a warrior, wants to admit that they were harassed or assaulted, but help is available, and, unfortunately, you are not alone. If you are suffering the effects of MST, please get help.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman June 24, 2016 at 1:30 AM

      You’re welcome, Crew Dog, you wrote a great post!

      Great point on MST. Sometimes we’re too focused on proving that the condition exists when instead we should be treating the symptoms.

  5. Reply
    Mel M. June 23, 2016 at 7:45 PM

    Nords,
    Thanks for the update. 3 months! Wow…that was fast! It took me 15 months after I retired before I got my rating…and the VA didn’t ask for any additional documents, leading me to assume they had everything they needed to make their decision. I don’t know which factor contributed to the fast processing…was it the VSO representative or the ongoing spotlight on the VA to speed things up?

    By the way, will your VA Disability payments be retroactive from 2002? Will you be required to file amended tax returns or will the difference in taxable income (with the VA disability payments tax free) be minimal that it wouldn’t make a difference?

    Oh yeah, were you out at White Plains this morning, with the south swells going since yesterday?

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman June 24, 2016 at 1:28 AM

      Thanks for the comment, Mel!
      1. Yes, very fast. The VSO helped me prune the options to the most realistic claims, and the VA’s doctors confirmed most of that. It also helps to study the disability benefits questionnaires for the claimed conditions so that the C&P exam has all the evidence it needs. I claimed only the issues that were clearly causing problems, and I didn’t claim anything that was too speculative to link to a service-related cause.

      2. The benefits are only retroactive to the date that the claim is initiated– in this case 8 February 2016 (three months before it was approved). I would’ve filed amended tax returns (which are easier than they seem) but since this all happened in 2016 I can just file my usual return next year. Hopefully DFAS and the VA generate the correct 1099-R at the end of this year, but the math is easy to check.

      3. Dude. It was awesomely epic, and I’m goin’ back for more in about 10 hours!

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