Veterans’ Advocate Insider- June/July 2013 Edition



President’s Message: Do You Have ‘The Right Stuff’ to Serve on NOVA’s Board?

Summer has arrived but will pass all too quickly.  The fall conference will be upon us before we know it and that is when we hold our membership meeting and elect new members to serve on the Board of Directors.  Election notices have been sent to membership and interested members can be included on the ballot if qualified and nominated by August 29, 2013.  (See Notice below for specific deadlines and nomination procedure.)

Nine members comprise the Board and have three-year terms so that each year one-third of the Board could potentially turn over.  Historically, candidates seeking election to the Board equaled the vacancies.  However, in the last several years, there have been more candidates than vacancies.  I believe that is a sign of a healthy organization and hope to see the trend continue.  This year, at least two of the Board members will not return, after serving many years of distinguished service.  While their leave represents a significant loss, it also presents an opportunity for motivated individuals to become involved in NOVA.

The Board physically meets at least two times per year, usually just prior to the seminars and often on one other occasion.  For the remaining months, the Board meets telephonically on alternating months.   However, the Board also converses by email, which is generally every week and as the need arises.  For the Board to be effective and carry out its obligations, its members must be engaged and actively participate in its functions.  Becoming a Board member simply to fluff up a CV is a disservice to our organization.  Last fall, the Board adopted a Code of Ethics, which all members must accept.  A key component of that code is that the “Board must act at all times in the best interests of the association and not for personal gain…”  The best interests of the association implicate consideration of the needs of all of our members:  attorneys, non-attorney practitioners, administrative staff, law students, etc.

NOVA faces many challenges ahead:  prosecuting legal challenges against VA actions, building and maintaining effective relationships with others who are important to NOVA, increasing our involvement in legislative activities, improving member benefits, etc.  It is very easy to stand on the sidelines and surmise about the progress of the game.  It is quite another story to become involved and make a difference.  While the tangible benefits of participating on the Board are somewhat limited (no pay, no pension, no free parking, etc.), I believe you will find the experience to be rewarding in many ways.  Are you up to the challenge?

Submit Your Name for NOVA Board Candidacy by July 12, Petitions by August 29

NOVA will elect new Board members at the Fall Annual Meeting on September 28, 2013.  In preparation for the election, the Nominations Committee sent the following notice to membership:

 

 

NOMINATIONS

for

Board of Directors

National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates

Fall 2013 Election

 

To all sustaining members:

In accordance with the NOVA By-laws, the Nominations Committee is soliciting candidates to serve on NOVA’s Board of Directors.  To be eligible to serve on the Board one must be (1) a Sustaining member in good standing for the three years preceding his or her nomination and (2) either admitted to practice before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims or the Department of Veterans Affairs, or both.  Any qualified sustaining member interested in running for the Board at the Fall Annual Meeting (9/28/13), should submit his or her name and a short statement supporting their candidacy to any member of the Nominations Committee, by July 12, 2013.

The Nominations Committee will then select three candidates to appear on the ballot.  The names of those selected will be announced before the end of July.  Any candidate who is not selected by the Committee may still appear on the ballot by submitting a nomination petition signed by at least 10 sustaining members in good standing.  All such petitions must be received by the Committee no later than August 29, 2013.

Any Sustaining member in good standing who will not be attending the Annual Meeting may request an absentee ballot from any member of the Nominations Committee.  Such request must be received no later than Monday, September 8, 2013.  The completed absentee ballots must then be received by NOVA’s Secretary no later than September 18, 2013.

Your Nominations Committee:

Mike Leonard, Chair                        (mike.leonard@vets-law.com)

Carol Scott                                        (carols@vetsprobono.org)

Todd Wesche                                      (twesche@disabilitylawclaims.com)

 

All requests and nominations sent by U.S. mail should be addressed to:

Michael A. Leonard, Esq.

Chairman, Nominations Committee

P.O. Box 15085

Wilmington, NC  28408

Redesigned NOVA Website Features User-Friendly Options

Manage Your Membership Needs with a Single Login

In early July, NOVA is launching a brand new website designed to help you get the most out of your membership.  The focus of this effort is to simplify your use of NOVA online resources, offer more options to access your membership benefits, and increase the ease and value of your overall website experience.

Here’s a sample of the member-driven features:

  • Create your own user name and password
  • Develop a personalized profile page
  • Register for events, including conferences & webinars
  • Manage your billing and payment methods
  • Renew your NOVA membership
  • Update your contact information
  • Access everything online with just one login.

The user-friendly format will enable you to get where you need to go quickly and efficiently.  The website features both public and protected areas for access by members, as well as separate sections for our veterans’ community and the media.

Your personalized profile page will be your gateway to everything -- from our newsletters and press releases to the Document Library (the Wiki) and NOVA Forum (the Bulletin Board).  While the “names” for the Wiki and Bulletin Board have changed, the content and organization of the Members-Only section is even better than before!

The redesigned website will provide a host of new features and functions, which may require a short adjustment period.  With that in mind, we thank you in advance for your patience as this extensive customization may require us to tweak a few areas during the first several weeks.  For the most part, we expect a smooth transition.

What’s next?  Shortly before the launch, current members will be added to our new Membership Database.  At that time, you will receive instructions via email on how to set up your user name/password.  Then right before the launch, we will send another email letting you know that we are ready to go.

NOVA Provides Written Testimony before DAMA on Current Appeals Process

Suggests Veterans Need Only File a NOD to Appeal RO Decision to BVA

On June 18, 2013, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs (DAMA) conducted a hearing entitled “Why Are Veterans Waiting Years on Appeal?:  A Review of the Post-Decision Process for Appealed Veterans’ Disability Benefits Claims.”  NOVA was invited to submit a Statement for the Record offering its perspective on the appeals process as it exists within the Regional Offices (ROs), Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA), and U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC), as well as areas for improvement.

In written testimony, NOVA focused on proposing an important improvement to the appeals process -- amending 38 U.S.C. § 7105 to provide that the veteran must file only one document, the Notice of Disagreement (NOD),  to appeal from a regional office decision to the BVA.  NOVA made this same suggestion on February 11, 2009, when testifying before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs regarding problems in the VA’s claim adjudication process.  On May 14, 2009, NOVA also testified before DAMA on the topic of “Examining Appellate Processes and their Impact on Veterans.”

NOVA illustrated the breakdown in the appellate process since 2009, citing statistics from the Government Accountability Office, the VA Office of the Inspector General, and 2012 Annual Report of the Chairman of the BVA.  For instance, the number of NODs awaiting disposition increased by 76 percent from fiscal years 2009 to 2012 and, during that period, the time it took VA to process a Statement of the Case (SOC) increased by 57 percent from 293 days to 460 days on average.  As of August 2012, after the veteran filed a second appeal (VA Form 9), it took an average of 560 days for VA regional offices to certify and transfer the appeal to the BVA.

Based on the BVA Chairman’s 2012 report, average elapsed processing times are:

  • 460 days for a veteran to receive an SOC after filing a NOD.
  • 40 days for a veteran to file a VA Form 9 after receiving an SOC.
  • 692 days for the regional office, after receiving a veteran’s VA Form 9, to certify and transfer the appeal to the BVA.
  • 251 days for the BVA to make a decision after receiving the veteran’s appeal from the regional office.

Thus, from the time the first appeal (NOD) is filed, the veteran waits on average a total of 1,443 days (almost four years) to receive a decision from the BVA on that appeal.

Clearly, VA continues to encounter significant delays in processing an SOC and certifying an appeal to the BVA.  NOVA’s proposal to amend the provisions of § 7105 to remove the requirements for the issuance of an SOC and the subsequent filing of a second notice of an intent to appeal (VA Form 9) would help to alleviate these delays.

NOVA asserted that redundant appeals at the VA’s administrative level do not serve the interests of our veterans and their families.  An expedited, streamlined appeal process is needed to reduce unnecessary delays.  It is unacceptable that veterans die while waiting for their appeal to be resolved in the existing statutory scheme.  That scheme must be amended in order to permit VA to meet this country’s commitment to those who have born the burden.  To view NOVA’s testimony, click here.

In addition, James Ridgway was asked by the subcommittee to provide a written statement in his personal capacity (not as a VA employee).  One of his recommendations is to abrogate the decision in Carpenter v. Principi, 15 Vet. App. 64, 76 (2001), replacing it with “a rule that if an attorney continues representation before VA after a remand from the federal courts and helps obtain the evidence necessary to grant the claim, then that is necessarily different work and must be compensated as such, or attorneys will not be able to afford to provide that assistance.”  To view James Ridgway’s testimony, click here.

Federal Circuit Orders VA to Clarify Three Issues in its Proposed Plan

On June 10, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued an order acknowledging receipt of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ timely Response to the Order to Show Cause issued by the Court on March 21, 2013. VA had consulted with NOVA and submitted a draft plan to the Court on May 20th for identifying and rectifying any harm suffered by any veteran—at any time—as a result of applying an invalid rule in hearings before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Board).

While the Court noted that the VA’s Response “. . . appears to address in a creative and comprehensive way most of the problems for veterans created by the VA’s invalid 2011 rule-making,” the Court ordered VA to provide clarification on three issues to further its consideration of the Proposed Plan.

In summary, the Proposed Plan commits VA to provide individual notices, within 90 days, to every veteran who had a case that may have been affected by the Board’s unlawful application of the 2011 Rule.  VA will grant such veterans the right to a new Board decision in each case, in addition to the right to participate in a new hearing and/or to submit additional evidence in support of their claim for benefits.  VA has also agreed to support a remand of any case pending in the Veterans Court that involves the potential application of the unlawful rule.  In addition, VA will conduct quarterly reviews to ensure that the Board does not apply the unlawful 2011 Rule in future cases.

The Court requested VA to clarify the following three issues:

(1)  VA proposes issuing its Notice to every claimant who “did not receive a full grant of relief and whose decision remains within the Board’s jurisdiction (i.e., the decision has not already been appealed or remanded).”  The Court understands the stated jurisdictional limitation to apply exclusively to the two examples given, that is, cases appealed or remanded.  If that is not a correct understanding, the Court requests clarification.

(2)  VA states that it will offer to submit a Joint Motion for Remand for cases that have been appealed to but not yet decided by the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC), so that the Board may correct any application of the 2011 Rule.  The Court asks VA to clarify its intentions regarding such cases (if there are any such cases) that have been appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) and not yet decided.

(3)  With regard to possible cases in which the Board applied the 2011 Rule against a veteran, and an appellate court (e.g., CAVC, CAFC) subsequently affirmed the Board decision prior to VA acknowledging the error or moving for a remand, should such cases be uncovered, the Court asks what VA’s intentions are with respect to them?

The Court granted VA a period of 20 days to respond to this Order.

Hickey Testimony Foreshadows Significant Changes for Veterans

Special Initiative Seeks to Close Record on Appeal Earlier in Process

On May 22, 2013, the Honorable Allison A. Hickey, Under Secretary for Benefits, Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), testified before Congress in a hearing titled, “Expediting Claims or Exploiting Statistics: An Examination of VA’s Special Initiative to Process Rating Claims Over Two Years.”

Under this initiative, which became effective on April 19, 2013, VA began making “provisional” decisions on the oldest claims in the inventory.  This adjudication allows eligible veterans to begin collecting disability compensation benefits immediately based on the evidence of record.  In doing so, many veterans who have waited the longest would more quickly begin collecting compensation benefits.  VBA’s plan is to complete claims pending two years or longer within 60 days and claims pending one year or longer within six months.  VA will continue to prioritize veterans who are most in need.

In her statement on the initiative, Hickey reiterated that VA will render final (rather than provisional) decisions on claims where all available evidence is of record.  The same applies when the rating assigned for each claimed issue already provides the highest level of disability compensation allowed under the VA’s laws and regulations.  Hickey further stated that, “Veterans may request to receive a final decision with appeal rights, rather than a provisional decision, before the one-year provisional period ends.”

Hickey outlined specifics of the plan in her testimony.  Veterans will be permitted to submit additional evidence or request that VA obtain additional evidence for a full year following the provisional rating, before VA issues a final decision.  This one-year “safety net” provides an opportunity for veterans to identify or obtain additional evidence that may change the provisional rating, particularly with respect to the disability evaluation level assigned.  If VA receives additional evidence within the year-long period that substantiates an increased evaluation, VA will pay the increased compensation back to the original date of claim.  After the one-year period for the submission of additional evidence, VA will issue a final decision to the veteran, and include information should the veteran decide to appeal the decision.  The veteran will then have the standard year to appeal the decision.

To view the full testimony, click here.

Proposed Bill - S. 928 - Cuts NOD Filing Period in Half to 180 Days

On May 9, 2013, new legislation (S. 928) was introduced on Capitol Hill to amend section 7105(b)(1) of title 38, United States Code, to require persons seeking appellate review of a VA decision to file a notice of disagreement (NOD) within 180 days from the date VA mails such decision to the claimant.  Currently, persons challenging a decision of a VA agency of original jurisdiction (AOJ) have one year from the date the AOJ mails the decision to initiate an appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Board) by filing a NOD.  The modification appears in Section 201, page 14, of S. 928, cited as the “Claims Processing Improvement Act of 2013.”

The bill raised a red flag with NOVA members who strongly oppose this “modification” of the NOD filing period.  In a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on June 12, NOVA’s position on Section 201 of the bill was echoed by the Disabled American Veterans.  The prevailing argument among NOVA and VSOs against the modification is that the vast majority of claimants who file a NOD already do so within 180 days.  Therefore, one could reasonably ascertain that claimants who do not file within 180 days need the additional time to obtain and submit additional evidence in support of their claims.  As a result, NOVA and other opponents of Section 201 do not perceive any positive effect resulting from this change.

In written testimony, Curtis L. Coy, Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Development, Veterans Benefits, advanced the VA’s position with this rationale:

“Currently, VA must wait up to one year to determine if a claimant disagrees with a decision on a claim for benefits.  If a claimant waits until the end of the 1-year period to file a NOD, VA is often required to re-develop the record to ensure the evidence of record is up to date.  Data support the conclusion that such late-term development delays the resolution of the claim.  If the period in which to file a NOD were reduced, VA could more quickly finalize the administrative processing of claims not being appealed and focus resources on the processing of new claims and appeals.  [ … ] adoption of this proposal would allow VA to more actively manage cases and work toward a faster resolution of claims and appeals.”

VA argued that enactment of this provision would not adversely affect claimants for VA benefits because (1) most claimants are able to quickly determine if they are satisfied with the VA’s decision on their claims and (2) the NOD is a relatively simple document.  VA claimed that the average filing time for NODs demonstrates that most claimants file their NOD shortly after receiving notice of the VA’s decision.  Consequently, claimants would not be adversely affected by the shortened filing period.

A similar proposal was submitted by VA with the FY 2014 budget request.  While VA acknowledged that this proposal has “no measurable monetary costs or savings,” the Department is convinced that its enactment would result in more expeditious adjudication of claims.  Because VA would have to wait only 180 days from the date of an adverse decision to determine whether a claimant intended to file an appeal, the Department believes it could therefore process the appeal quicker than waiting a year for that determination.

Mr. Coy also elaborated on the VA’s plans to make more changes to the appellate process:

“VA believes there is a need to further shorten the timeframe for Veterans to initiate appellate review to 60 days.  Data show that most appeals are filed within the first 30 days following notice to a claimant of VA’s decision on a claim.  We therefore believe this 60-day time period would still protect Veterans’ rights to appeal VA’s decisions while bringing the appeal filing period more in line with that of Federal district courts and the Social Security Administration, which allows 60 days for appeal of the initial agency decision.”

The Board of Directors is aware that VA has discussed both changes -- modifying the NOD filing period and closing the record on appeal earlier in the process -- in open forums on several occasions.  However, this legislation indicates VA has taken these matters to the next level without regard to the negative impact on veterans.  NOVA will continue to work with our constituents to take appropriate actions to address both issues.

House Passes Ruth Moore Act to Ease Burden of Proof on MST Victims

NOVA Testimony Demonstrates Favorable Vote Serves Both Veterans, VA

On June 4, 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 671, the Ruth Moore Act of 2013, by a voice vote and drew bipartisan support from leaders of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.  Introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), the bill aims to spur reform of the evidentiary standards for survivors of military sexual trauma (MST) who file claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for related mental health conditions.  The Ruth Moore Act would allow a statement from the military sexual assault survivor as sufficient proof that the assault occurred.

Here’s what proponents of the Ruth Moore Act had to say about its passage:

“The Department of Defense must take the lead in addressing military sexual trauma throughout the ranks in the strongest possible terms.  Additionally, veterans who have suffered this horrific crime must be completely confident the Department of Veterans Affairs will provide the care, assistance and support these victims deserve.  VA’s approach to military sexual trauma claims requires immediate and thoughtful review, and that is precisely what the Ruth Moore Act aims to ensure.” – Chairman Jeff Miller

“VA did the right thing by our Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange by updating their regulations, and we expect VA to also do the right thing by veterans who have suffered from military sexual trauma. We have a duty to make these veterans’ lives a little better.  They never should have had to deal with sexual assault in their service to our nation, and they should never have to struggle to get care and benefits after they leave.” – Ranking Member Mike Michaud

“Whether the attack happened on a Navy base in Europe or at a National Guard training facility here in the U.S., whether they were soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines, the story too often has the same ending:  The victims were blamed, the crime was covered up, and the survivors themselves became the subject of further harassment and recrimination.  And too often, what followed was years of mental health issues, lost jobs, substance abuse and homelessness.  These stories don’t have to end this way. With the Ruth Moore Act, we can change the VA's policy so veterans who survive a sexual assault can at least get the benefits they deserve.” – Rep. Chellie Pingree (ME-1)

A recent Pentagon report estimated that the number of cases involving “unwanted sexual contact” jumped to about 26,000 in the latest fiscal year.  In 2012, about 4,000 veterans sought compensation from VA for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other illness connected to MST.

Though VA originally came out against the bill, the Department has since dropped its opposition.  Supporters of the bill have also called on President Barack Obama to enact the changes through an executive order.

Note:  On April 16, 2013, NOVA provided written testimony on MST and the Ruth Moore Act before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, urging lawmakers to pass the legislation.  The Ruth Moore Act was introduced by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) on February 13, 2013.  It is named after Ruth Moore, a victim of military sexual trauma who fought for 23 years to obtain disability benefits, during which time she struggled with depression, suffered from a sexually transmitted disease acquired from her attacker, and eventually became homeless.  In 2009, a VA investigator discovered that her medical records had been tampered with and eventually helped her win a 70 percent disability rating and corresponding benefit.

To read more about NOVA’s testimony, click here. 

VA Processes Nearly All Disability Claims Pending Over 2 Years

On June 20, 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that more than 65,000-claims – or 97 percent of all claims over two years old in the inventory – have been eliminated from the backlog as a result of the initiative launched in April to expedite disability compensation claims decisions for veterans who have a waited a year or longer.

According to VA officials, Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) staff will now focus their efforts on completing the disability claims of veterans who have been waiting over one year for a decision, while completing the final batch of oldest claims in progress.

Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey says “the success of this phase of the effort” was due in part to the implementation of mandatory overtime for VBA claims processing staff, as well as the support of physicians from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), who expedited exams to provide medical evidence needed to rate these pending claims.

The remaining two-year-old claims will be finalized in the coming days except for those that are outstanding due to unique circumstances, such as the unavailability of a claimant for a needed medical exam, military service, vacation, or travel overseas.

In May, VA announced that it was mandating overtime for claims processors in its 56 regional benefits offices to increase production of compensation claims decisions, which will continue through the end of FY 2013.  Currently, VA has the lowest number of claims in its inventory since August 2011 and has reduced the number of claims in the VA backlog – claims pending over 125 days – by 10 percent since the initiative began.

Under this initiative, VA claims raters may make final or provisional decisions on the oldest claims in the inventory, which will allow veterans to begin collecting compensation benefits more quickly, if eligible. Veterans are able to submit additional evidence for consideration a full year after the provisional rating before VA issues a final decision.  If no further evidence is received within that year, VBA will inform veterans that their ratings are final and provide information on the standard appeals process.  If a veteran disagrees with a final decision and chooses to appeal, the appeal is entered into the appellate processing system, and is not reflected in the claims inventory.

VA’s inventory is comprised mostly of supplemental claims from veterans already receiving disability compensation who are seeking to address worsening conditions or claim additional disabilities.  Regardless of the status of compensation claims, veterans who have served in combat since November 11, 1998, are eligible for five years of free medical care for most conditions from VA.  This eligibility was enacted through the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008.

VA and VSOs Announce Claims Initiative to Reduce Backlog

Joint Effort Promotes Use of Fully Developed Claims

On May 21, 2013, VA, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and The American Legion announced a new partnership to help reduce the compensation claims backlog for veterans.  The effort—the Fully Developed Claims (FDC) Community of Practice—is a key part of VA’s overall transformation plan to end the backlog in 2015 and process claims within 125 days at 98 percent accuracy.  According to VA, FDCs can be processed in half the time it takes for a traditionally filed claim.

“A Fully Developed Claim is the most effective way to ensure a Veteran’s claim never reaches the backlog—and is the basis for this new initiative between VA and what we expect will be an ever-increasing number of Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) and others who represent Veterans at various points of the claims process,” said Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey.

Claims are considered to be “fully developed” when veterans submit all available supporting evidence to VA at the time they first file a formal claim and certify they have no additional evidence to submit.  VA asserts it can then process the claim in half the time it takes for a traditionally filed claim.

The FDC program supports the sharing of best practices across VSOs to identify up front all evidence necessary to support a veteran’s claim.  VSOs have long played a role in submitting veterans’ claims - often with representatives working within VA regional offices.   The American Legion and DAV are the first to step forward to work with VA on the FDC program.

This initiative is the latest example of the collaboration between VA and VSOs.  In July, VA held a workshop to obtain the views of VSO representatives and to provide them with information on the effort to eliminate the claims backlog.  The workshop focused on the shared goal of better serving veterans and the positive impact of filing Fully Developed Claims.  VA intends to replicate the workshops in Veterans Benefits Administration regional offices across the country.

This is the latest effort in support of the Secretary’s plan to reduce the backlog.  On May 15, VA announced mandatory overtime for claims processors in its 56 regional benefits offices through the end of fiscal year 2013.  VA also just reported that the paperless claims processing system known as the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) has been deployed to all 56 regional office locations.

A Farewell Tribute to Regina Alegre

NOVA continues to implement decisions made by the Board of Directors in January and April of 2013 to consolidate operations in the Washington, DC office.  As a result of this initiative, Regina Alegre had decided not to accept a position in DC, leaving her job as NOVA’s executive administrator on June 30.  Please join us in paying tribute to Regina and the significant contributions she has made to NOVA over the years.

Regina joined NOVA in April 2005, when past President Theodore Jarvi hired her as a part-time contractor for our organization of about 80 members.  At that time, her primary duties consisted of assisting NOVA with membership, board meetings, and planning NOVA’s seminars with Wade Bosley, the lone member of the Seminar Committee.  Towards the end of 2007, Richard Cohen was added to the staff as the Executive Director and her role began to expand along with the size of the organization.

Around mid-2007, NOVA’s membership and seminar attendance began to grow as of result of the amendment of 38 U.S.C. § 5904 regarding attorney fees for representation of veterans.  Attendance at the seminars drastically increased from 66 to 263 from the Spring of 2006 to the Fall of 2010.  Regina played a key role in transitioning our training materials from paper to a hybrid of paper and CDs, and, eventually, to electronic (downloadable) formats.  The Spring 2007 conference in New Orleans was one of the last that NOVA used printed materials, shipping 45 boxes of seminar binders.

“Due to a problem with the printers, I had to enlist the help of my mother, housekeeper, a son and his girlfriend, and around my dining room table we collated the materials and binders to be able to ship them the next day to the conference location,” Regina recalls.

To save on the cost of supplies, printing, and shipping, and also to cut down on the time required to distribute materials, Regina proposed to the Board and Seminar Committee that these materials be distributed on CDs instead, which NOVA did for two conferences.  By Spring 2009, Regina completed the transition of seminar materials to online download/distribution.  In addition, NOVA grew from 80 members in 2005 to a high of 473 by the end of 2012.

In June of 2012, Regina became a full-time employee, and by then her duties had expanded to include the management of membership, the Bulletin Board, our website, bookkeeping, and of course, seminars.  We extend our sincere gratitude to Regina for the terrific job she has done in this capacity.

Regina would like to add:  “My special thanks to Ted Jarvi for hiring me in the beginning, and many thanks to the members who have made it a pleasure to be a part of the organization.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the time I’ve spent with NOVA, serving its members.  I have a lot of wonderful memories.”

Brief Notices

Staff Changes Bring New Talent to D.C. Office

On July 31, Cathy Cuddy will be leaving her position as NOVA’s executive coordinator to pursue a master’s degree in Public Health at Boston University.  Over the past year, Cathy has done a great job supporting our D.C. office and NOVA members!  In addition to responding to your inquiries on a daily basis, Cathy has been responsible for updating the Wiki and Bulletin Board, arranging details for training seminars and webinars, hand-delivering witness testimony to Capitol Hill, and contributing to a number of special assignments.

Most recently, Cathy worked tirelessly on two significant projects:  behind-the-scenes arrangement of NOVA’s Twentieth Anniversary Celebration, both the conference and the gala, as well as the design and development of NOVA’s new website, which is set to launch shortly.  We owe Cathy a huge debt of gratitude for her many contributions to NOVA and we know that you will join us in wishing her well!

After a lengthy search, we are pleased to announce the newest member of the NOVA team, Katy Andriano.  Katy will serve in the role of Executive Coordinator/Office Manager.  She is a native New Yorker who recently relocated to the D.C. area.  Before joining us, Katy worked as a Junior Advocate, representing and aiding clients in obtaining their Social Security Benefits and working with the Social Security Administration.  In that position, she was successful in winning claims, expediting cases, and turning over unfavorable decisions.  Prior to her work in Social Security, Katy spent time reporting for a local news station in New York.

Katy is a graduate of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she studied Communications and History.  In her spare time, she enjoys watching or reading the news, writing, dabbling in photography, and spending time with family.  Katy is looking forward to meeting NOVA members and helping us to assist you in representing our nation’s veterans.

New Member Service – VA RO Directory – Available Today

NOVA has just posted a VA Regional Office (RO) Directory on the Wiki for the exclusive use of our members.  This new service provides the addresses, contact names, and telephone/fax numbers for all VA ROs, including the Directors, Veterans Service Center Managers, and Travel Board Coordinators.  An addendum includes an Attorney Fee Coordinator (AFC) Directory by RO, as well.

You can view the file, titled “Directory of VAROs 6.24.13” in the folder “Directories-contact information VA, Group VII, BVA, AFCs and ROs.”

Our intent is to update the directory on an annual basis.  However, if you find an error or wish to make a contribution, please contact NOVA at (202) 587-5708.  You may also send an email to Katy at kandriano@vetadvocates.org or David at dhobson@vetadvocates.org.

Fast Letters/Comp. Service Bulletin Posted to the Wiki

A series of fast letters have been posted on the Wiki in the folder "VA Fast Letters and Training Letters- Not otherwise filed.”  A short summary of these is provided here by NOVA Board Member Todd Wesche, from the firm LaVan and Neidenberg:

13-07:  Establishes the 2012 rates for burial and plot/internment allowances at $722, up from $700.  It also discusses that, due to technical limitations, some survivors may have been paid at the lower rate and VA is working to identify those cases and pay the higher rate.

13-08:  Not particularly important as it deals with internal training procedures for the Manila RO on pension and fiduciary matters.

13-09:  Discusses a certification by the Department of Defense (DoD) regarding the completeness of a veteran's Service Treatment Records (STRs) upon transfer of those records to VA.  The certification by DoD will be associated with the claims file, but only for those veterans who separated from service on or after January 1, 2013.  If there is a certification of record, VA will not seek additional STRs unless there is an allegation of treatment at a particular facility and those records are not in the certified STRs.  13-09 specifically addresses versions of these certification letters.

13-10:  Provides some insight into how VA is looking at effective dates, particularly for previously un-adjudicated or "discovered" claims.  It gives guidance that VA is to log these claims in its systems using "the earliest VA date stamp" from "any Department of Veterans Affairs facility."  Most notably, if VA adjudicates a previously undiscovered claim, the effective date assigned for that claim must be approved by someone no lower than the Assistant Director of the RO.  This does not govern CUE claims, however.  (For those with access to MAP-D, 13-10 also discusses new codes used to track these claims.)

13-11:  Discusses how VA will import VA medical records from CAPRI into VirtualVA.  Of particular note is that VA will not import all CAPRI records into VirtualVA, but only those records that are selected by the adjudicator.  This means advocates must ensure that they obtain separately all of the records from the medical facility independent of what is imported from CAPRI.  Also, if a FOIA/PA request specifically requests the records from VirtualVA, only then will they be printed.

And NOVA member Drew Early added:

13-13:  Revises and clarifies VA procedures relating to claims for total disability ratings based on individual unemployability (TDIU).  VA will no longer presume a claim for TDIU is a claim for increase in all service-connected disabilities.  As part of a substantially complete application for TDIU, VA will require that the claimant with multiple service-connected disabilities specify at least one disability that he or she believes causes the unemployability.

Also, the May Issue of the VA’s Compensation Service Bulletin has been posted to the Wiki in the folder “Comp and Pen and SMC Payment Rates.”

CAVC Rules Advisory Committee Seeks to Fill Vacancies

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims’ (the Court's) Rules of Practice and Procedure, Rule 40, call for the appointment of a Rules Advisory Committee.  Its purpose is to study and advise the Court on possible changes to Rules of the Court, either sua sponte or at the request of the Court.

By Rule, the Committee members may serve up to three consecutive terms of two years.  As of July 1, the Court will have two vacancies on the Committee, and may have additional vacancies later this year.

Currently, the Court is accepting letters of interest from members of the Court's bar indicating a willingness to serve on the Rules Advisory Committee.  The Court is also interested in receiving nominations for service on the Committee.

Please direct your expressions of interest and nominations by letter to:

Gregory O. Block
Clerk of the Court
United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
625 Indiana Avenue, NW, Suite 900
Washington, DC  20004

Steven Keller Departs from BVA on June 30

Steven L. Keller, Acting Chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA) for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) since February 2011, left his position on June 30.  Prior to his service as acting chairman, Mr. Keller served as BVA Vice Chairman since February 2009.

Mr. Keller began his government career as a BVA staff attorney in 1982.  In May 1991, he was selected as Counsel to the Chairman and, in 1995, was named Chief Counsel, the same year that President Clinton approved his appointment as a member of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.  Mr. Keller served as the Board’s Senior Deputy Vice Chairman from 1997 until 2008, when he was competitively selected as Principal Deputy Vice Chairman, a Senior Executive Service (SES) position.

In addition to his management and judicial responsibilities with the Board, Mr. Keller has been involved in a range of task forces and study groups focused on improving the VA’s benefits adjudication system.

Order Your Copy of A History of NOVA

A History of NOVA, which chronicles the organization from 1993 to 2013, is now available to purchase for $10.  The book includes an appendix containing NOVA members’ contributions to the jurisprudence of veterans’ law.  If you would like a copy, please write a check to the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates, Inc. and indicate “NOVA History” in the memo section.  Please send your payment to the attention of Katy Andriano at NOVA, 1425 K Street NW, Ste. 350, Washington, DC  20005.

Get Ready for San Diego Fall Conference

NOVA’s Fall Conference will be held in San Diego on September 26-28, 2013 at the Westin Gas Lamp Quarter.  This year’s conference will feature a variety of experts in veterans’ law, including Thomas J. Murphy, Director of Compensation Service at VA since August 2010.  As Director, Mr. Murphy is responsible for the development and implementation of policies and procedures related to the administration of VA disability and death compensation programs.  In addition, NOVA has invited several judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims to join us and awaits word on their availability.

NOVA Holds Engaging Webinar on 3.156

On June 27, NOVA held a webinar on the topic of “38 CFR 3.156 – New & Material Evidence.”  We extend our special thanks to NOVA Member and Veterans Law Attorney Barbara Cook for presenting this valuable material to our membership.  As noted by NOVA Founder Ken Carpenter, "In my opinion, there is no more important VA regulation for advocates to know and understand.  The three subsections of 3.156 are an advocate’s best friend.”

The positive feedback from webinar participants thus far is echoed in Ken’s remarks:

“Each subsection addressed by Barbara provided advocates with a means of obtaining VA benefits, because each of the subsections is misapplied consistently by the VA regional office adjudicators, DRO, and Veterans Law Judges."

Once again, we commend Barbara for her preparation and presentation of this topic, along with NOVA Treasurer Matthew Hill, who hosted the webinar, and Mike Mooney, who provided commentary.  We hope you will join us next time for another NOVA webinar!

 

 


 

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