Tester Slams VA Secretary for Continuing to Limit Montana Veteran Voices in the Disability Claims Process

Ranking Member: “The bottom line is VA’s role is to make it easier—not harder—for veterans to access earned benefits in a process that should be non-adversarial”

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Jon Tester is slamming the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for continuing to deprive veterans in Montana and across the country a last look for errors before their ratings become final.

Earlier this year, VA authorized a decision eliminating the critical 48-hour review period—a longstanding rule for decades, allowing veterans and their representatives to review benefits determinations prior to VA’s final decision—as it promotes efficiency, mitigates potential errors, and reduces the need for appeals.

“The bottom line is VA’s role is to make it easier—not harder—for veterans to access earned benefits in a process that should be non-adversarial,” Tester wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “Given that we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and veterans are relying on their benefits more than ever, it makes no sense to implement a policy change of this significance. The negative effects of this decision fall directly on the veteran, and I strongly urge VA to reconsider this decision. Veterans and their representatives deserve a voice during the claims process, and the removal of the 48-hour review severely reduces it.”

A recent VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report found that Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) staff failed to properly apply a new rule allowing for the postmarked date of a claim to be the effective date 98 percent of the time for approximately 3,200 claims during OIG’s April review period. The report also found that VBA staff did not follow the updated date of receipt guidance because VBA managers failed to ensure regional office staff were aware of and understood the new policy.

Tester highlighted, “Recent conversations with Montana veterans have reinforced my belief that this decision severely degrades the integrity of the claims process and is an example of VA’s propensity to favor timeliness over quality. The negative effects of this decision have already been realized as multiple Veteran Service Organizations have reported an increase in avoidable errors leading to incorrect rating decisions for veterans.”

Montana Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) joined Tester’s effort to provide veterans with the ability and resources they are owed when disputing their disability claims with VBA.

“The professional expertise of the Veteran Service Officers (VSO) of the VFW and the American Legion has been a critical component of providing quality control in reviewing the claims for disability,” said National/Montana VFW Legislative Representative Tom Johnson. “My own experience with filing a claim in 2006 after an Iraq deployment literally took the wind out of my sails when it all was denied. A VFW VSO assisted me in refiling my claim, which eventually led the Veterans Benefits Administration awarding me 30 percent for bilateral shoulder and right knee injuries. As a Company First Sergeant in the Montana Army National Guard, it was a stressful and daunting experience. For younger enlisted troops, it can even more so. I thank Senator Tester for championing our effort to reinstate the 48-hour review of service, as it has been a vital component of the disability rating review process.”

Earlier this year, Tester introduced his bipartisan Veterans Claim Transparency Act to reinstate the critical 48-hour review period to ensure accredited Veteran Service Organizations, attorneys, and claims agents have the ability to review and course correct benefits determinations. In April, he also doubled down on this effort by leading his colleagues on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in demanding that VA reconsider recent efforts to restrict a veteran’s ability to review and dispute their disability claims before they are finalized.

Read Tester’s full letter to Secretary Wilkie HERE.