Lawmakers Cry Foul Over VA Accessibility Issues
This is an update on VA Accessibility. Following an 11-month investigation, the United States Senate Special Commission on Aging said the VA has not made technology accessible to older adults, veterans, and disabled persons.
The report says the government has not met the requirements for accessibility set forth by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires the federal government to develop accessibility guidelines for its electronic equipment. Through the investigation, senators uncovered problems throughout the federal government, including with the VA’s websites. Their report says federal departments and agencies often take years to address Section 508 violations, allowing issues to linger. Furthermore, insufficient oversight and enforcement of the law leads to a lack of compliance.
VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said in a statement that the department is working urgently to ensure the “vast majority” of websites that veterans visit are accessible, prioritizing sites based on the frequency of visits.
VA Accessibility and the Medical Records System
Public websites are not the only technical issue that has plagued the agency in recent years. The VA’s shift to electronic health records (EHRs) beginning in 2018 was supposed to make medical records more accessible to veterans and their appeals lawyers. However, progress has been slow in this area.
Smaller VA facilities, like hospitals and clinics in rural areas, have had the most compliance issues. These facilities usually must scan older records into a digital system and typically need more staffing to handle such jobs. Moreover, VA records hardly ever include private or other non-VA facility records. Once these records are digitized, important information often gets lost in translation. So, at best, a VA medical history may only be part of the puzzle.
Decisions on disability claims are based on agency records — meaning the older paper records scanned into the system. Recording and translation issues can affect a claims examiner’s initial decision. If there is insufficient evidence to support a claim, it may result in a denial.
If lack of service records plays a role in a denial, an attorney may suggest seeking independent (i.e., non-government-provided) evidence. An independent medical examination is often one solution. A non-VA doctor examines both the patient and all the relevant and available medical records, not just the records on the VA’s computer. This comprehensive medical examination usually yields different results than the limited examinations that VA doctors perform (known as “compensation and pension,” or C&P exams).
Service Records Accessibility Issues
Likewise, a veteran’s service record, which often establishes a service-related connection for VA disability status, may be inadequate. Over time, records get lost, damaged, or destroyed. For example, a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center resulted in the loss of many veterans’ service records, leading to problems in disability claims later on. Without records establishing the onset of a condition in service, many veterans had their claims denied due to circumstances outside their control.
Frequently, service records are little more than deployment records. They show where a veteran was stationed and may indicate something about the veteran’s daily duties, mainly through the veteran’s service rank. This basic information may be enough to establish a service-related connection in an Agent Orange or other presumptive illness case, for example. However, it might not be enough to make a connection in trauma injury or other illness cases, like asbestos exposure.
Once again, to fill in the gap, a VA disability attorney must look beyond the service records, usually to buddy statements, which are written statements from other service members with whom the veteran served. These statements clarify the veteran’s daily duties and also specify what dangerous conditions, like toxins or asbestos, they may have been exposed to.
Using Buddy Statements Along with Service Records
VA PTSD ratings are one example in which a service record alone may not be enough to make a connection. In PTSD ratings for the VA, evidence of the impact PTSD has on a veteran’s daily life is needed. Often it is difficult for the veteran to testify about PTSD. So family members and friends can submit statements of what they observe. Buddy statements from family and friends often more accurately describe a veteran’s symptoms, especially in PTSD ratings.
These individuals cannot testify about the legal aspects of the claim. But they can testify about how a condition affects a veteran’s everyday life.
Buddy statements can also provide support for what the veteran has already stated to the VA. In a VA rating for migraines, for example, the veteran can state they are incapacitated for a day. Then a co-worker can testify that the veteran misses work regularly due to migraines.
When a veteran’s claim is denied, they can file a notice of disagreement. The veteran can file the notice using VA Form 10182, followed by submission of new evidence using VA Form 20-0995.
Connect With Savvy Attorneys
An attorney is a valuable partner for VA accessibility and in all phases of a disability claim. For a free consultation with an experienced veterans disability lawyer, contact Cameron Firm, PC at (800) 861-7262 or fill out the contact box on our website. We are here to represent veterans nationwide.
This article is for educational and marketing purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship.