As of 2007, a veteran must wait some six months before receiving a decision from a VA Regional Office (VARO) regarding a claim for service-connected compensation. Then, if the veteran’s claim is denied, the appeals process at the local VARO level can take another six months to two years before it is finally forwarded to the next level of the appeals process, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA) in Washington, DC. Once there, a veteran must wait approximately two years for a decision from the BVA. Similarly, the delay at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) on average is also two years. All said, if a claim for VA benefits is denied, a veteran can spend 10 years or more waiting for VA to make the right decision.
Veterans who pursue their appeals for VA benefits without professional representation are at a severe disadvantage, because VA laws and regulations are complex, convoluted, and under constant change.
Veterans have many options and agencies to help assist and represent them in securing their claims. However, veterans represented by attorneys have the lowest denial rate in front of the BVA, at 17.7 percent, well below the average 24.2 percent denial rate, according to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals Annual Chairman’s Report (Fiscal Year 2011).
Veterans with attorney representation before the BVA also are among the most likely to have their appeals allowed according to the report, with a 30.1 percent success rate. Veterans who are represented by claims agents have a slightly higher success rate at 32.7 percent, but the agents were responsible for only 71 successful appeals, whereas attorneys handled 1,295 cases.
Attorneys who represent veterans also have a very high rate of collecting Equal Access Justice Act (EAJA) fees, meaning they helped win a case where the government’s position was not “substantially justified.” This happens 70 percent of the time in cases when a veteran wins his or her appeal. For comparison, EAJA fees are only collected 42 percent of the time when social security appeals cases are won.
The process, while complex, is sympathetic to claimants, meaning that VA must read claims and appeals in the broadest way possible to ensure that veterans receive the most benefits to which they are entitled. Veterans with attorneys who have extensive knowledge of the VA’s claims process are the best suited to take advantage of this “sympathetic” environment.
Lastly, the BVA retains an attorney for every appeal: it makes sense for a veteran to be on equal footing when their claim goes through its most precarious stage.