June 2000/July 2000
Veterans Benefits Update
Good News On Claims
By Leonard J. Selfon, Esq., Director, Veterans Benefits Program
At last we have some welcome news on the veterans benefits front. The
news is from the U.S. House of Representatives, which recently passed
important legislation to make it easier for veterans to prove their claims
for federal veterans benefits.
As we have previously reported, the law currently requires that a
claimant for VA benefits submit a "well-grounded'' claim before the
VA will assist in developing the facts surrounding that claim. Such
assistance can range from obtaining military, VA, or private medical
records, to performing a physical or psychiatric examination to ascertain
service connection for a disease or injury, or the level of disability of
an already service-connected disorder.
The chronological order of a well-grounded claim triggering the VA's
legal duty to assist was cemented by the U.S. Court of Appeals for
Veterans Claims' decision in Morton v. West. In that decision, the
Court held that the VA has no authority under the law to help claimants
with the development of evidence in support of a claim for VA benefits if
the claim is not well-grounded. A proposed VA regulation, issued after the
Morton decision, gives a claimant 30 days to submit evidence required
to render a claim well-grounded (as defined by the regulation), following
the VA's written notification of its determination that the claim is not
During this time, if it has not already done so, the VA must obtain
service medical records and outstanding VA records that the claimant
sufficiently identifies. The VA will not schedule any examinations or seek
to obtain private medical records during the 30-day period. If evidence
sufficient to render the claim well-grounded is not received by the
deadline, the VA will deny the claim as not being well-grounded. In our
response to the VA's proposed regulation, VVA commented that its
provisions would make a bad situation worse.
In March, VVA and several other veterans service organizations (VSOs)
testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committees' Subcommittee on
Benefits on proposed legislation that would abolish the well-grounded
claim prerequisite and require the VA to develop claims at the outset.
Following subsequent meetings with the House Veterans Affairs Committee
staff, the VA, and the VSOs, the proposed legislation reached its final
evolution. Most of the VSOs' suggested revisions were adopted.
On July 25, the House, by a 414-0 vote, passed H.R. 4864, The Veterans
Claims Assistance Act of 2000. This landmark legislation virtually
eliminates the requirement of the submission of a well-grounded claim
before receiving the VA's assistance with the development of the evidence.
The bill also clearly identifies both the claimant's and the VA's
obligations with respect to securing evidence in support of a claim for VA
Part of the VA's duty to assist includes its responsibility to obtain
relevant records in its possession from any other federal agency (such as
the Social Security Administration) at no cost to the claimant. The bill
also mandates that the VA would be required to perform a thorough physical
or psychiatric examination, or to obtain a medical opinion, where there is
insufficient evidence already of record to establish service-connection of
a current disability or collection of symptoms--provided that there is
evidence that an event, injury, or disease during active military service
was capable of causing or aggravating a current disability).
Finally, the bill would require that the VA make multiple efforts to
obtain all relevant evidence identified by the claimant and notify the
claimant (and the claimant's representative) of such efforts. Under the
act, claimants would have two years to request that the VA reopen a claim
that was denied as not well-grounded subsequent to the Morton decision.
VVA is extremely pleased with congressional passage of this bill, and
we are working closely with the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, the VA,
and the other VSOs on the Senate's version of this legislation. We are
hopeful that the Senate will pass a similar bill later this year. With
luck, a reconciled duty-to-assist bill could be signed into law by the
President early next year.
In related legislation, the House also passed H.R. 4850, The Veterans
Benefits Act of 2000, which calls for an increase in the rates of
disability compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities,
as well as the rates for dependency and indemnity compensation for
survivors of certain disabled veterans. The bill also provides entitlement
to service connection for a heart attack or a stroke suffered by a
reservist during inactive duty for training. Moreover, this act calls for
entitlement to special monthly compensation benefits for women who have
undergone service-connected single or bilateral radical mastectomies.
Interestingly, the bill follows a VA General Counsel opinion that under
current laws special monthly compensation is not available for such
Similar legislation is under consideration in the Senate. We will keep