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By Debbie Gregory.

If you’ve been approved for service-connected disability benefits from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the agency will assign a disability rating that specifies the seriousness of your condition. You can be given a rating of 0 to 100 percent, and this percentage is associated with a certain monetary amount you’ll receive for the disability.

Your VA disability compensation benefit is not static. As a matter of fact, your benefit can be increased by the VA if you know the right steps to take.

Even if you are currently receiving compensation from the VA, you can still request an increase in your compensation for a new disability. For example, you are receiving disability for a back injury you received while in the military, and now you are experiencing hearing issues that may be related to your military service.

Additionally, you can file a secondary claim for a new disability that’s linked to a service-connected disability you already have. For example, you might file a secondary claim if you develop arthritis that’s caused by a service-connected knee injury you got while on active duty.

You can also file for an increase to an existing disability because the condition has gotten worse. You may experience greater pain, suffer broader or more challenging symptoms, or find that your day-to-day functioning has decreased.

Keep in mind that any time you request an increase in your VA disability rating, you are opening your claim for re-evaluation. The VA can actually lower or terminate your existing rating, so make sure you have all the proper documentation and paperwork to support your claim.

To reduce your disability rating, the VA must have specific evidence that your condition has improved. The responsibility of proof is on the VA. However, it’s important to be diligent in protecting your rating. It’s important never to miss a reexamination appointment because the VA can reduce or terminate your rating without warning because of this.

If you have been denied a rating or you feel it is too low, you can challenge the VA’s decision with an appeal known as a “Notice of Disagreement.”

By Debbie Gregory.

On January 5, 2019, House Representatives Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) and Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) introduced bipartisan legislation to ensure that retired members of the Armed Forces who have a service-connected disability will be able to receive both disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for their disability in addition to their retirement pay acquired through their years of military service or combat-related special compensation.

The Retired Pay Restoration Act was referred to the Committee on Armed Services, in addition to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, for a period to be subsequently determined by the Speaker, in each case for consideration of such provisions as fall within the jurisdiction of the committee concerned.

Under current law, veterans receiving 40% or lower rates of service-connected disability compensation are not eligible for full retirement and disability benefits. The Retired Pay Restoration Act would correct this error and allow veterans receiving 40% or lower rates of service-connected disability to receive both military retired pay and veterans’ disability compensation or combat-related special pay.

Each representative introducing the act made a statement via a January 10th press release:

“Our veterans have dedicated their lives in service to our country, and should not be penalized for that service due to a bureaucratic rule,” Rep. Gabbard, founder and co-chair of the Post-9/11 Veterans Caucus said. “Retirement benefits and disability benefits are two different things, and one should not be counted against the other.”

“Our nation’s veterans have earned and deserve the utmost respect, best possible services and care for the sacrifices they and their families have made to defend this country—especially under the constant threat of global terrorism,” said Congressman Bilirakis. “However, under current law, some military retirees have their disability pay deducted from their retirement pay, which is unconscionable. These are two completely different benefits, and it is wrong for them to count against one another. Plain and simple, it isn’t right to deny Veterans the financial compensation they have earned and deserve. I am honored and grateful to have Representative Tulsi Gabbard working alongside me this year, in a bi-partisan manner, to champion this important cause. I am hopeful that with our combined efforts, this will be the year we are able to finally rectify this injustice.”

If you would like to show your support, you can sign a petition to be delivered to the White House and Congress at https://petitions.moveon.org/sign/honor-our-military-heroes.

By Debbie Gregory.

An investigation conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has revealed that of the $6.2 million budget allocated to the Department of Veterans Affairs for suicide prevention outreach in fiscal year 2018, the agency only spent $1.5 million by the end of the fiscal year, leaving $4.7 million unused.

Suicide among veterans is disproportionately higher than the rest of the U.S. population, especially among veterans younger than 35. And in light of the VA leadership touting suicide prevention a top priority, this information begs the question, why?

The suicide prevention budget was meant to cover outreach via social media posts, public service announcements, billboards, and radio, bus, Facebook and print advertisements, which all declined in 2017 and 2018, as did the effort on suicide prevention month.

“VA has stated that preventing veteran suicide is its top clinical priority, yet [the Veterans Health Administration’s] lack of leadership attention to its suicide prevention media outreach campaign in recent years has resulted in less outreach to veterans,” the GAO report states.

The GAO investigation came at the request of Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. He said that the findings conveyed “a deeply troubling level of incompetence” by President Donald Trump’s administration.

“At a time when 20 veterans a day still die by suicide, VA should be doing everything in its power to inform the public about the resources available to veterans in crisis,” Walz said in a statement. “Unfortunately, VA has failed to do that, despite claiming the elimination of veteran suicide as its highest clinical priority.”

The VA blamed leadership vacancies for the downturn, with the former national director for suicide prevention, Caitlin Thompson, resigning in July 2017, and not being replace until the new director, Keita Franklin, was appointed in April, 2018.

“Officials reported not having leadership available for a period of time to make decisions about the suicide prevention media outreach campaign,” the report states. “GAO found that [VA] did not assign key leadership responsibilities or establish clear lines of reporting, and as a result, its ability to oversee the outreach campaign was hindered. Consequently, [the VA] may not be maximizing its reach with suicide prevention media content to veterans, especially those who are at-risk.”

“This year, I’m making sure that we are spending the funding 100 percent,” said Dr. Steven Lieberman, who is in charge of the Veterans Health Administration. “I’m reviewing the budget monthly and making sure we have obligated all the dollars. We have to get it right.”

By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) published new guidelines that took effect on October 1, 2018 for verification of Veteran-Owned Small Businesses (VOSBs) and Service Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses (SDVOSBs),

Under the changes, the VA continues to determine whether individuals are veterans or service-disabled veterans, and is responsible for verification of applicant firms for listing in the Vendor Information Pages (VIP) database.

Responsibility for adjudicating challenges of the status based upon issues of ownership and control is now to be determined by administrative judges at Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA).

These newly implemented rules are an attempt to resolve inconsistencies between SBA and VA regulations that have led to conflicting decisions about a company’s qualification for set-asides.

The standard for reviewing a VOSB or SDVOSB’s eligibility is “totality of the circumstances,” with the burden of proving eligibility falling on the applicant. Decisions based on an applicant’s failure to meet any veteran eligibility criteria are not subject to appeal; however, an applicant can re-apply and submit a new application six months after denial.

The changes also clarify the process for removal from the VIP database and expand the reasons for removal to include having tax liens and unresolved debts. Other removal criteria include being found guilty of or involved in criminally-related matters as well as debarment of any individual owning or controlling the business concern, as well as submitting false information to VA.

The VA is not providing an additional level of review, but merely acting on determinations issued by courts or other administrative bodies. Further, bankruptcy has been added as a changed circumstance that can lead to a contractor’s removal from the VIP database.

The new rules clearly define VA’s role in determining whether individuals are veterans or service-disabled veterans, and responsibility to determine the ownership interests of those individuals now ultimately falls on SBA, subject to appeal to OHA.

By Debbie Gregory.

The U.S. military used Agent Orange to clear plants and trees during the Vietnam War. A number of serious illnesses have been linked to exposure, including Leukemia, Hodgkin’s Disease, various cancers, diabetes and Parkinson’s Disease. Researchers with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found have found that enough evidence exists to also link hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy (MGUS) to Agent Orange exposure.

Their report, entitled Veterans and Agent Orange: Update 11 (2018), found that sufficient evidence exists that links exposure to at least one of the hazardous chemicals with hypertension and MGUS The hypertension finding is an upgrade from their 2014 report and MGUS is a newly considered condition.

The findings clear the way for veterans with hypertension and MGUS to have easier access to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits.

Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) called on VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to add hypertension and MGUS to the list of diseases presumed to be caused by Agent Orange.

“There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Agent Orange made veterans sick, it made their children sick, and it brought pain and suffering and premature death to many,” VFW National Commander B.J. Lawrence said in a statement. “We now call on VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to use his authority and recognize the science in the report to swiftly add these two illnesses to the presumptive list so that these veterans can finally receive the assistance they earned and deserve.”

Wilkie has previously opposed legislation that would provide Agent Orange benefits to tens of thousands of Navy veterans who served on ships off the coast during the Vietnam War and have been diagnosed with MGUS.

Veterans who served in Vietnam, in Thailand or along the Korean DMZ are encouraged to contact a VFW Service Officer to discuss whether they are eligible to file a VA claim for Agent Orange exposure.

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