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Few military spouses are using this $4,000 benefit

Spouses Benefit

 

The number of spouses of junior personnel who are using the Defense Department’s spouse tuition assistance program declined by about 45 percent between 2011 and 2017, according to a new report by government auditors.

About 7 percent of eligible spouses used the My Career Advancement Accounts in 2017, according to the report from auditors in the Government Accountability Office. The program, commonly referred to as MyCAA, provides up to $4,000 in tuition assistance for education or training for spouses of service members in the paygrades of E1 to E5, W1 to W2, and O1 to O2.

MyCAA funds can be used only for the pursuit of certificates, licenses, or associate degrees in a portable career field ― a high-growth and high-demand field that is most likely to have job openings near military installations. A recent Rand report found that the program may be contributing to higher retention rates, as well as helping the spouses’ job prospects and earnings.

Auditors said the number of military spouses receiving tuition assistance through MyCAA declined from 38,000 in fiscal 2011 to about 21,000 in fiscal 2017.

That 21,000 represented about 7 percent of the 302,000 eligible spouses using the program, which was similar to the rates for fiscal years 2014 through 2016, auditors stated.

In 2011 about 10 percent of eligible spouses were using the program.

“While we are not particularly surprised by a decline in utilization of the program, the rate decrease from 2011 to 2017 is alarming,” said Jennifer Davis, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association. "Since we know, based on DoD’s own data, that over 30 percent of employed military spouses are in fields requiring a license or certification which are covered by MyCAA, and military families [make permanent change of station moves] every two to three years on average, a 40-plus percent drop in program utilization is significant.

“This clearly shows that the program is not fulfilling the intent and need of these spouses. We urge DoD and Congress to look at ways to tweak the program in an effort to maximize its impact on military spouse education and employment.”

Sources

Some GI Bill Rates Are Increasing Aug. 1

GI Bill Rates

 

The Department of Veterans Affairs has announced the Post-9/11 GI Bill rates for the 2019-2020 school year. These rates will be effective on Aug. 1, 2019. The Montgomery GI Bill and Dependents' Education Assistance programs will see a rate change on Oct. 1, 2019.

By law, the GI Bill rate increase is tied to the average cost increase of undergraduate tuition in the U.S. For the 2019-2020 school year, that increase will average 3.4%.

More than 80 percent of those taking advantage of their GI Bill benefits are doing so through the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Private & Foreign School GI Bill Rates

Effective Aug. 1, those using the Post-9/11 GI Bill at a private or foreign school will see their maximum yearly GI Bill rate increase from $23,671.94 to $24,476.79.

Flight Training

Those who are enrolled in flight schools will see their annual maximum GI Bill benefit increase from $13,526.81 to $13,986.72.

Licensing/Certification/National Testing

You can be reimbursed up to $2,000 per test for licensing and certification tests. For national testing programs, there is no maximum amount of GI Bill reimbursement. Your entitlement will be charged one month for every $2,042.06 spent; currently, that trigger point is $1,974.91.

Correspondence Courses

You can be reimbursed the actual net costs, not to exceed $11,888.70 annually. That's up from $11,497.78 currently.

Monthly Housing Allowance

The Monthly Housing Allowance is also scheduled to change on Aug. 1.

If you are attending classroom sessions, your housing allowance is based on the ZIP code of the campus location where you attend the majority of your classes.

If you are attending classes at a foreign school, not on a military base, your maximum housing allowance will be $1,789.00. This is prorated based on the length of your active-duty service and how many classes you are taking.

If you attend all your classes online, your maximum housing allowance will be $894.50. This is also prorated.

Keep Up With Your Education Benefits

Whether you need a guide on how to use your GI Bill, want to take advantage of tuition assistance and scholarships, or get the lowdown on education benefits available for your family, Military.com can help. Sign up for a free Military.com membership to have education tips and benefits updates delivered directly to your inbox.

Source

Will New Layer Of Bureaucracy Fix GI Bill, Voc Rehab?

GI Bill 002

 

The GI Bill, Vocational Rehabilitation and other education and employment benefits may get a major overhaul should new proposed legislation pass.

Earlier this week, bi-partisan lawmakers revived an old push to peal out the education and employment benefits cash cows from Veterans Benefits Administration. Over the years, finance wizards have moved discretionary funds necessary to administer GI Bill, for example, a practice now credited with the recent Forever GI Bill software flop.

Over a hundred thousand veterans had their GI Bill payments delayed or erroneously adjudicated when a software glitch triggered processing errors. The agency promised to have the software ready by last October, but various mistakes forced delays and errors.

Lawmakers now justify the new legislation using the GI Bill example where the agency lacked direct political oversight of the GI Bill.

The new system would be the fourth administration focused on education and employment activities. The legislative shift passed the House committee last year but went nowhere in the Senate.

Lack Of Attention

The shift is believed to improve services for veterans in transition by resolving the “lack of attention” that failed the agency’s Vocational Rehabilitation, GI Bill and Home Loan benefits programs.

“By aligning transition, education, and employment programs in a fourth administration within VA, we will ensure that these opportunity-focused programs get the high priority they deserve, and the oversight they need to better serve veterans,” House bill sponsor Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said in a statement.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL supports the legislation saying it would “modernize the outdated structure of the VA and provide more direct oversight and accountability over existing programs aimed at helping our veterans lead economically prosperous lives post-service.”

It is presently supported by Student Veterans of America, Disabled Veterans of America, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Veterans Education Success.

Insider Feedback

I have been talking with insiders about the creation of a fourth administration for years and fully support the move. Officials inside Veterans Benefits Administration have made a habit of moving funds dedicated to education programs into disability claims system upgrades like the electronic claims system.

The theory behind creating the new administration is that added focus from the President directly through the appointee would increase accountability.

However, many of the old leaders of the agency reject the idea and believe that an additional layer of bureaucracy is not needed. Though, the current system clearly subordinates all educational benefits programs to the needs of the Disability Compensation system and the needs of the contractor propping it up.

But what do you think? Will adding another layer of bureaucracy is the big fix or will it create more problems?

I Would Help Out

I would definitely throw my hat in the ring to help form the new administration if asked should the new legislation pass, though I will not hold my breath on being asked to help with much of anything.

For the past decade, since I’ve been writing about the Veterans Benefits Administration, one thing has remained constant – – and that one thing is a lack of appropriate funding for Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment.

Even though that benefits program is far superior to the GI Bill for disabled veterans, it still lacks the funding and staffing to make it perform the way the People intended through the laws of Congress.

For the past decade, the number of applicants to Voc Rehab has increased by more than double from around 70,000 to 180,000 disabled veterans.

Meanwhile, the number of veterans approved for program benefits remains static at around 30,000 with program graduates coming in around 12,000 per year.

Source

Many Vietnam Vets Don’t Know They Now Qualify for Agent Orange Benefits

VNV Qualify for Benefits

 

Expanded list of diseases linked to the herbicide means more Veterans and their survivors qualify

Many Vietnam Veterans and their survivors may be missing out on substantial payments they are entitled to receive as a result of exposure to Agent Orange, Veterans’ advocates say.

Though most Veterans are aware of the toxic nature of Agent Orange, an herbicide used to clear foliage in Vietnam, not everyone has kept track as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has expanded a list of diseases that make it easier to qualify for benefits. Until the 1990s, the government recognized only one ailment – a skin condition called chloracne – as being linked to Agent Orange. But over the years, the VA list of medical conditions associated with Agent Orange has grown to more than a dozen, including some that are much more prevalent.

“There are still thousands of Vets who don’t realize their disease is on the list,” says Bart Stichman, executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), a nonprofit that helps Veterans, survivors and active duty personnel pursue service-related benefits.

The diseases now on the VA’s Agent Orange list are ischemic heart disease, lung and trachea cancers, prostate cancer, multiple myeloma, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s Disease, type 2 diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, AL amyloidosis, chronic B-cell leukemia, chloracne, early-onset peripheral neuropathy, porphyria cutanea tarda, and soft tissue sarcomas.

Several other diseases — bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, hypertension and Parkinson’s-like symptoms — have been under consideration to be added to the list.

Once a disease is put on the list, it is easier to get disability compensation for it because the VA presumes the disease is a result of exposure to Agent Orange for Veterans who served in Vietnam or its inland waterways between 1962 and 1975. The same applies to Veterans who served in or near the Korean demilitarized zone between 1968 and 1971. These Veterans don’t need to prove that they were exposed to Agent Orange to qualify for benefits related to ailments on the list.

For Veterans who qualify for disability payments and survivors who qualify for death payments, the benefits can mean tens of thousands of dollars a year in income.  

The problem, Veterans advocates say, is that Veterans don’t necessarily make the connection between a disease they have had for years and the expanded Agent Orange list. For example, a Veteran diagnosed decades ago with type 2 diabetes may not have noticed when the government later added the condition to its list of ailments linked to Agent Orange, says Linda Schwartz, special advisor on health to the Vietnam Veterans of America. If a Veteran is seeing a civilian doctor who isn’t well-versed in Veterans’ issues, she says, the doctor wouldn’t necessarily associate the diagnosis with Agent Orange.

When Veterans don’t think to apply for disability benefits based on conditions added to the VA’s Agent Orange list in recent years, they can miss out on sizable payments. David DePodesta, a 69-year-old Veteran who lost sight in his right eye due to enemy shrapnel while serving with the Marines in Vietnam in 1969, was fortunate that he did pay attention to the list as it grew. DePodesta says that for many years his eye injury qualified him for a disability rating of 30 percent and a monthly payment of under $400. After the VA in 2010 added ischemic heart disease to its list of ailments linked to Agent Orange, DePodesta — who had open heart surgery in 1988 and again in 2010 — saw his disability rating jump to 100 percent and his monthly payment jump to more than $3,100. He also received a large lump sum payment compensating him retroactively to his first diagnosis with ischemic heart disease.

DePodesta, a retired mortgage banker who works occasionally as a substitute teacher and serves as a prison chaplain, says the monthly benefits together with the retroactive payment made a “pretty big change in my lifestyle."

“Getting extra compensation certainly helps. We’re not wealthy,’’ he says. “We get by with Social Security and the compensation and substitute teaching.’’

When Veterans don’t realize that they are eligible for disability benefits based on ailments added to the VA’s Agent Orange list, their survivors also miss out on monthly payments under a program called Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), which provides lifetime tax-free income to survivors of Veterans who had service-related disabilities or diseases.

Stichman at NVLSP estimates that tens of thousands of survivors are unaware they are eligible for benefits because their spouses had diseases that the VA linked to Agent Orange only after their death. Survivor benefits can be higher depending on their situation, including whether they need a caregiver to assist them with everyday activities like bathing and dressing.

Like Veterans, survivors also can sometimes get retroactive payments in addition to qualifying for monthly death benefits. Stichman says his organization helped an Alabama widow persuade the VA to pay her $247,508 in retroactive benefits. The woman’s husband, a Vietnam Veteran, had died of cardiac ischemia in 1983, but the VA had rejected a request for a death pension that she filed in 1985. Because the VA decades later added ischemic heart disease to its list of Agent Orange-related diseases, the widow was able to make the case that she should have been getting benefits all those years.

Even if Veterans suffer from an ailment not on the VA list, they should consider applying for disability benefits if they believe it is the result of Agent Orange exposure. The VA says it encourages Veterans in such cases to gather medical and scientific evidence that their ailment was caused by Agent Orange and submit it to see if it qualifies them for a service-connected disability benefit.

“If a direct link is made to Agent Orange exposure in a particular case, then service connection could still be granted,’’ says Beth Murphy, VA Compensation Service Director.

Veterans service groups say it can be worth trying to bring such claims even though they can be difficult.

“This type of case requires a lot of medical evidence and is harder to prove but not impossible,’’ says Felicia Mullaney, deputy director of Veterans Benefits, Vietnam Veterans of America.

Because disability claims can be complicated, Linda Schwartz at VVA says it's vital for Veterans and survivors to use an accredited Veteran service officer when filing such claims.

“They can’t do this by themselves,” says Schwartz.

The VA suggests that Veterans can get help from this list of government-accredited Veterans and Military Service Organizations. Veterans and survivors also can learn more about eligibility for benefits.

One way for Veterans to get started if they’ve never explored a link between their medical ailments and Agent Orange is to see if they qualify for a free Agent Orange exam.

(Some pieces deserve a repeat run)

Source

Extending Benefits for Veterans

Extending Benefits

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WBRE/WYOU-TV) -- A Veteran’s advocacy group is urging Congress to provide additional VA health benefits to Veterans who may have been exposed to toxic chemicals while serving in Guam and American Samoa.

Eyewitness News Washington Correspondent Mark Meredith with why some say the effort is long overdue.

Sheila Kilpatrick’s husband Lonnie died of cancer last year.

She says his poor health stemmed from exposure to toxic chemicals, like agent orange, while he served in Guam in the 1970s.

"We know this was due to the herbicides that were sprayed on Guam, we know that we witnessed the spraying" Said Kilpatrick.      

The Kilpatrick family says they faced pushback from the VA over efforts to get additional health benefits.

Two congressmen call that unacceptable.

"Four decades is far too long, we can't wait any longer, our Veterans are heroes," Said Florida Representative Gus Bilirakis.

 Bilirakis and Guam’s delegate introduced a new bill to expand health benefits for Veterans who served in the Pacific Islands.

"If it was toxic enough for us to discontinue their use since in 1980, then it was creating hazards for our Veterans and our communities, that we need to acknowledge," Said Rep. Michael San Nicolas,  Guam

In January a federal judge ruled the v-a must consider benefit claims from navy Veterans who say they too were exposed to toxic chemicals while serving off the Vietnam Coast.

Veteran advocates say that ruling allows them to focus on cases involving people who served in Guam.

Kilpatrick says she expects the fight will take months but remains optimistic.

"Oh I’m not giving up, no way I’m giving up, I’ll fight wherever I have to go, I don't like to fly but if i have to fly...I'll fly again"

Source

Veterans Pension Eligibility

About Pensions

 

If you’re a wartime Veteran who meets certain age or disability requirements, and your income and net worth are within certain limits, you may qualify for monthly payments through our Veterans Pension program. Find out if you can get this benefit.

Can I get Veterans pension benefits from VA?

You may be able to get pension benefits if you meet the requirements listed below.

Both of these must be true:

  • You didn’t receive a dishonorable discharge, and
  • Your yearly family income and net worth meet certain limits set by Congress. Your net worth includes all personal property you own (except your house, your car, and most home furnishings), minus any debt you owe. Your net worth includes the net worth of your spouse.

Find out about Veterans pension rates.

And at least one of these must be true about your service. You:

  • Started on active duty before September 8, 1980, and you served at least 90 days on active duty with at least 1 day during wartime, or
  • Started on active duty as an enlisted person after September 7, 1980, and served at least 24 months or the full period for which you were called or ordered to active duty (with some exceptions) with at least 1 day during wartime, or
  • Were an officer and started on active duty after October 16, 1981, and you hadn’t previously served on active duty for at least 24 months

And at least one of these must be true. You:

  • Are at least 65 years old, or
  • Have a permanent and total disability, or
  • Are a patient in a nursing home for long-term care because of a disability, or
  • Are getting Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income

How do I know if I served under an eligible wartime period?

Under current law, we recognize the following wartime periods to decide eligibility for pension benefits:

  • Mexican Border period (May 9, 1916, to April 5, 1917, for Veterans who served in Mexico, on its borders, or in adjacent waters)
  • World War I (April 6, 1917, to November 11, 1918)
  • World War II (December 7, 1941, to December 31, 1946)
  • Korean conflict (June 27, 1950, to January 31, 1955)
  • Vietnam War era (February 28, 1961, to May 7, 1975, for Veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam during that period. August 5, 1964, to May 7, 1975, for Veterans who served outside the Republic of Vietnam.)
  • Gulf War (August 2, 1990, through a future date to be set by law or presidential proclamation)

What should I do if I received an other than honorable, bad conduct, or dishonorable discharge?

If you’ve received one of these discharge statuses, you may not be eligible for VA benefits.

There are 2 ways you can try to qualify:

Find out how to apply for a discharge upgrade.

Learn about the VA Character of Discharge review process.

How do I apply?

You can apply online right now.

Apply for Veterans Pension Benefits

Source

New VA Appeals Process: What to Expect in 2019

New Appeals Proc

 

As the number of appeals filed with the VA increases, the average wait time for Veterans to receive decisions increases exponentially. In order to try and rectify the clogged up system, President Trump signed into law the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 which introduced the RAMP program. This Act revamps the entire VA disability benefits appeals process and will replace the current appeal system. The new appeals system is set to replace the current “legacy” system on February 19, 2019.

Any claims filed on or after February 19, 2019, will be worked under the new appeals system. If you currently have pending appeals in the legacy system and you did not opt your appeals into the RAMP program, they will continue to be worked under the legacy system. The plan is for the VA to work all of the legacy appeals until all appeals are under the new system, though this process could take years to complete. The VA will be conducting reviews of appeals in the legacy system and new system simultaneously.

Under the new system, once a Veteran receives a decision, he or she still has one year from the date of the decision to appeal it. If the Veteran decides to appeal the decision, he or she must choose between three appeal avenues or lanes: Higher Level Review, Supplemental Claim, or file a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) directly to the Board of Veterans Appeals.

Higher Level Review

Currently, there are two Regional Offices conducting Higher Level Reviews: Seattle and St. Petersburg. In the Higher Level Review lane, a more senior VA adjudicator (called Decision Review Officers in the Legacy system) will perform a de novo review of your file and make a decision based on the evidence already of record. De novo means that they will review your appeal without regard to prior decisions and make a decision based on their view of all of the evidence. In this lane, you are basically getting a different person to review the same evidence because you cannot submit new evidence in this lane. There is no duty by the VA to assist in gathering additional evidence or records; the decision is made based on the evidence in the record. This lane in the RAMP program could potentially be utilized for extremely blatant and obvious errors that could be easily rectified without the need for additional evidence.

Supplemental Lane

The Supplemental Lane will be conducted at various Regional Offices throughout the United States. In this lane, new evidence is required to reopen a previously denied claim or file for an increased rating of a service-connected condition. The evidence must be “new and relevant” to the claim; “new” meaning not previously submitted or received by the VA and “relevant” meaning significant and related evidence to the issue you are claiming. For example, the new and relevant evidence could be evidence of symptoms warranting an increased rating or a nexus opinion for service connection. In the Supplemental Lane of the RAMP program, the VA has a duty to assist the Veteran in developing or finding evidence for their claim. For example, if you send correspondence stating that you have been receiving treatment at a specific facility and give details of the time period, providers, and other related issues, the VA has a duty to try and find these records for you. The more specific you are, the easier it will be for the VA to find the records. However, it may be better for you to get the records and send them to the VA as new and relevant evidence so that you know they will be added to your file.

NOD Direct to the Board

I find this to be the most interesting change in the new system. In the legacy system, a Veteran had to wait to get a rating decision and then appeal it with an NOD. Then the Veteran had to wait to receive a Statement of the Case and then file a VA Form 9 to get in line for review at the Board. This process could take an average of at least 3+ years. The new RAMP program cuts out Statement of the Cases and VA Form 9s allowing Veterans the ability to appeal directly to the Board after receiving a rating decision. This could potentially save a lot of time for more complicated issues that would likely not get granted at the Regional Office, like non-presumptive Agent Orange conditions.

If a Veteran chooses to file an NOD directly to the Board, there are three review options to choose from:

  • Direct Review: This lane will most likely be the fastest lane at the Board. It is a review by the Board based on the evidence of record at the time of the prior decision. This means that additional evidence cannot be filed and there is no request for a hearing. The Board makes a decision based solely on the evidence of record.
  • Evidence Submission: This lane allows for submission of additional evidence but within 90 days of filing the NOD. There is no request for hearing so the Board makes their decision based on the evidence of record and any additional evidence filed within the 90 day period.
  • Hearing: This lane will most likely be the slowest lane as additional evidence can be submitted and there is a request for hearing. This means that evidence can continue to be submitted until the Board schedules and conducts a hearing with the Veteran.

There are many similarities but also differences between the legacy system and the RAMP program’s appeals system. It is important to know your options moving forward with your current appeals and any future appeals. These changes are expected to go into effect February 19, 2019, and we will continue to update on these changes as we enter this new chapter in VA appeals.

Source

Ten things most Veterans don’t know about VA home loans

VA Home Loans

 

More than 21 million Veterans and Servicemembers live in the U.S. today, but only about 6 percent of them bought a home using a VA home loan in the past five years. That percentage could be much higher.

Eligible Veterans often bypass the program as a viable option for a number of reasons.

First, they may not know all the advantages. Second, they may think getting a VA loan is an arduous process to be avoided. Last, some lenders don’t take the time to teach Veterans about the program, or don’t know much about it themselves. The VA home loan is a program non-military home buyers wish they had access to.

My advice: take a few minutes to learn these 10 facts about the program, and you’ll all but forget about any other home buying or refinance option.

1. No down payment, no mortgage insurance

These are perhaps the biggest advantages to a VA loan. You don’t need a down payment. None whatsoever. Most mortgage programs, such as FHA and conventional loans, require at least 3.5 percent to five percent down.That’s up to $12,500 on a $250,000 home purchase.

With a VA loan, you can buy immediately, rather than years of saving for a down payment. With a VA loan, you also avoid steep mortgage insurance fees. At 5 percent down, private mortgage insurance (PMI) costs $150 per month on a $250,000 home, according to PMI provider MGIC.

With a VA loan, this buyer could afford a home worth $30,000 more with the same monthly payment, simply be eliminating PMI. Using a VA loan saves you money upfront, and tremendously increases your buying power.

2. Use your benefit again and again

Your VA home loan benefit is not one-and-done. You can use it as many times as you want. Here’s how.

Assume you purchased a home with a VA loan. But now, you’ve outgrown the home and need something bigger. When you sell the home and pay off the VA loan completely, you can re-use your benefit to buy another home. Your entitlement is restored in full.

But that’s not the only way to re-use your benefit.

Eligible Veterans and Servicepersons can receive a one-time restoration when they pay off the VA loan, but keep the home. This scenario comes into play if you purchased the home long ago, and have paid off the loan. It also applies if you have refinanced the VA mortgage with a non-VA loan.

In these cases, you can keep the home, and enjoy the benefits of VA home buying one more time.

3. Your benefit never expires

Once you have earned eligibility for the VA home loan, it never goes away. Those who served 20, 30, even 50 years ago often wonder whether they can still buy a home today if they never used their benefit. If eligibility can be established, the answer is yes.

Eligibility is based on the length of time served, and the period in which you served. For instance, a U.S. Army Veteran with at least 90 days in service during the Vietnam era is likely eligible.

To check eligibility, first obtain your DD Form 214. With that document, a VA-approved lender can request your VA Certificate of Eligibility for you, or you can request it directly from VA’s eBenefits website. You may be eligible to buy a home using a VA home loan, even if you served long ago.

4. Surviving spouses may be eligible

More than 3,000 surviving spouses purchased a home with their fallen partner’s VA benefit in 2015. Un-remarried husbands and wives of Servicepersons who were killed in action can buy a home with zero downpayment and no mortgage insurance. Plus, the VA funding fee is waived.

There’s no way to repay the spouse of a fallen hero, but this benefit surely helps them move forward after tragedy.

5. VA Loan Rates Are Lower

According to loan software company Ellie Mae, VA loan rates are typically about 0.25% lower than those of conventional loans. The VA backs the mortgages, making them a lower risk for lenders. Those savings are passed on to Veterans.

Additionally, VA loans come with some of the lowest foreclosure rates of any loan type, further reducing risk for lenders. No surprise here, but Veterans and Servicepersons take homeownership seriously. These factors add up to lower rates and affordable payments for those who choose a VA loan.

6. VA loans are available from local lenders

The VA home loan is unlike most other VA benefits. This benefit is available from private companies, not the government itself. The Department of Veterans Affairs does not take applications, approve the loans, or issue funds. Private banks, credit unions, and mortgage companies do that.

The VA provides insurance to lenders. It’s officially called the VA guaranty. The VA assures the lender that it will be repaid if the Veteran can no longer make payments. In turn, lenders issue loans at superior terms. In short, a VA loan gives you the best of both worlds. You enjoy your benefit, but have the convenience and speed of working with your chosen lender.

7. Buy, refinance or tap into home equity

The VA home loan benefit is not just for buying homes. Sure, it provides unmatched home buying advantages, but you can also use it to refinance your existing mortgage, whether it’s a VA loan or not.

Homeowners with a VA loan can use the Interest Rate Reduction Refinancing Loan, or IRRRL, to easily drop their rate and payment without an appraisal, or even paystubs, W2s or bank statements. The VA streamline refinance, as it is commonly known, gives VA loan holders a faster, cheaper way to access lower refinance rates when rates fall.

Even homeowners without a VA loan can use a VA refinance. The VA cash-out loan is available to eligible Veterans who don’t have a VA loan currently. As its name suggests, a VA cash-out refinance can be used to turn your home’s equity into cash. You simply take out a bigger loan than what you currently owe. The difference is issued to you at closing.

The VA cash-out loan amount can be up to 100 percent of your home’s value in many cases. Use the proceeds for any purpose – home improvements, college tuition, or even a new car.Many homeowners today are dropping their rate and taking cash out simultaneously, accomplishing two goals at once.

But you don’t have to take out cash to use this VA loan option. You can also use it to pay off a non-VA loan. Eligible homeowners who pay mortgage insurance or are dealing with other undesirable loan characteristics should look into refinancing with a VA loan. It can eliminate PMI, get you into a stable fixed-rate loan, pay off a second mortgage, or simply reduce your rate to make homeownership more affordable.

8. Lenient guidelines for lower credit scores, bankruptcy, foreclosure

Unlike many loan programs, a lower credit score, bankruptcy or foreclosure does not disqualify you from a VA home loan.

Shop around at various lenders, because each will have its own stance on past credit issues. However, VA guidelines do not state a minimum credit score to qualify. This gives lenders leniency to approve loans with lower scores. In addition, VA considers your credit re-established when you have established two years of clean credit following a foreclosure or bankruptcy.

Many homeowners across the U.S., military and civilian, experience bankruptcies and foreclosures due to a loss of income, medical emergency or unforeseen event. Fortunately, these financial setbacks don’t permanently bar VA-eligible home buyers from ever owning again.

The exception, though, is a foreclosure involving a VA home loan. In this case, you may need to pay back the amount owed on the foreclosed VA loan to regain eligibility. But for most home buyers with past credit issues, a VA home loan could be their ticket to homeownership.

9. Funding fee waivers

VA typically charges a funding fee to defray the cost of the program and make home buying sustainable for future Veterans. The fee is between 0.50 percent and 3.3 percent of the loan amount, depending on service history and the loan type.

However, not everyone pays the VA funding fee. Disabled Veterans who are receiving compensation for a service-connected disability are exempt. Likewise, Veterans who are eligible for disability compensation, but are receiving retirement or active duty pay instead, are also exempt from the fee.

10. Buy a condo with a VA loan

You can buy many types of properties with a VA loan, including a single-family (free-standing) home, a home of up to four units, and even manufactured homes. But condominiums are commonly overlooked by VA home buyers.

Condominiums are ideal starter homes. Their price point is often lower than that of single-family homes. And, condos are often the only affordable option in many cities.

The VA maintains a list of approved condominium communities. Veterans can search by city, state, or even condominium name on VA’s condo search tool. It’s not a short list. For example, there are more than 2,400 approved condo communities in Washington State, about 1,000 in Texas, and a staggering 9,000 in California.

As a Veteran or Servicemember, consider the array of home types when shopping for a home.

11. There are more than 10 reasons to use a VA home loan

The preceding 10 facts are just a few, and there are actually many more reasons to use your VA loan benefit. You’ve certainly earned it.

The freedom afforded to this country by members of all branches of the military, past and present, is not easily repaid. But consider this program a small “thank you” for your service and dedication.

Source

7 Actions You Can Take to Prevent Your VA Rating from Being Reduced

VA Rating Reduced

 

You open the big white envelope you just received from the Department of Veterans Affairs, nervously anticipating what actions the VA has so wisely decided to take concerning your VA service-connected disability benefits.  “They are reducing me!” you shout.  “But my condition has become worse, not better!” Your frustration with the bureaucratic monster sets in, followed by a wave of fear and worry.  Your monthly income is going to be cut in half.  You think to yourself, “How can the VA do this!?!  How am I going to pay my bills and support my family?”  

You are not alone in your frustration.  The VA can and does frequently take action to reduce a rating.  However, many times a rating is reduced without proper due process or observation of law.  Compounding the problem are VA examiner performing inadequate exams and under trained VA adjudicators.  I am going to give you seven actions you can take to if the VA proposes to reduce your rating.

  1. 1.Attend your re-examination!

The VA may require a Veteran who receives service-disabled compensation benefits to be reexamined by a VA physician to verify the current severity of your disability.  Generally, reexaminations are ordered if evidence indicates a change in the disability or the VA thinks the disability is likely to improve. The examination will generally be scheduled five years from the date of the rating decision. There are five situations in which no reexamination should be scheduled:

  • The disability is unchanging;
  • Symptoms have persisted without “material improvement” for five or more years;
  • You are over 55 years old;
  • Your rating is  the minimum rating; or
  • Your combined rating will not be affected

*TIP* If the VA schedules a Veteran for an examination and the disability falls within one of the categories listed above, the Veteran may wish to contact the VA and request that it reconsider its decision to schedule the exam.

A Veteran who fails to report for a reexamination without good cause or without attempting to reschedule the examination may have his disability payments reduced or discontinued.  Good cause includes the VA sending notification of the reexamination to the wrong address; illness or hospitalization of the Veteran; or death of an immediate family member.  If you have a reasonable excuse for failure to report for a scheduled reexamination, the Veteran should notify the VA of this fact as soon as possible.

At the exam, it is important that you make the examiner aware of all the symptoms of the service-connected disability that is being reevaluated.  Do not downplay or minimize your symptoms.  It is also important to fully describe to the examiner the effects of your disability upon your ordinary activity.  For example, say the Veteran’s back condition is being reexamined.  The Veteran’s back may not be painful at the moment the exam is being conducted, but he experiences painful motion and flare-ups in his back while at work.  It is important to make this information known to the examiner.

Shy Veterans or those who minimize their symptoms may wish to bring a spouse or another loved one into the exam so that they can provide additional details on the Veteran’s observable symptoms to the examiner.

  1. 2.Request a hearing.

An important protection in cases where the VA proposes a reduction of service-connected disability benefits is the Veteran’s right to a predetermination hearing.  The hearing must be requested within 30 days from the date of the notice of the proposed reduction.  If the Veteran requests a hearing within 30 days, the proposed reduction will not be implemented, if at all, until the hearing takes place.

A benefit of asking for a hearing within the 30 day period is that the reduction of benefits is delayed.  The reduction will not be implemented until at least 60 days after the final decision to reduce is sent to the Veteran.  This buys the Veteran at least two months of benefits at the current percentage and gives additional time to gather evidence.  Further, the hearing provides another opportunity for the Veteran to describe his condition and symptoms to the VA adjudicator.

  1. 3.Obtain a copy of your reexamination report.

You can’t contest a proposed reduction if you don’t know the content of the medical opinion upon which the reduction is based.  It is easy to obtain a copy of the report so that you can verify the physician accurately recorded the symptoms of your service-connected condition. Complete this form:https://www.va.gov/vaforms/medical/pdf/vha-10-5345a-fill.pdf  and send or bring it to the VA medical facility which performed your reexamination.

Once you receive the examination, review it and search for any inaccuracies reported by the examiner.  For example, perhaps the VA examiner reports that you have panic attacks only once a week, but you told the examiner you experience panic attacks at least three times a week.  You can report this discrepancy to the VA using VA Form 21-4138 or mention it to the VA adjudicator at your scheduled hearing.  An exam based on inaccurate facts should be considered of little value and the Veteran should request a new exam is given.

  1. 4.Acquire your treatment records.

The VA must base any proposed reduction upon a review of the entire history of the Veteran’s disability and not on the single reexamination.  If you receive treatment for the service connected condition that the VA is proposing to reduce, it is important that the VA has copies of these records. Treatment records are important so the VA has an accurate picture of the disability.  If you receive treatment from a VA facility, you can obtain a copy of your treatment records using the form mentioned in point “3” above.  If you are privately treated, ask your private physician how you can obtain a copy of your treatment records and progress notes.  It is recommended that you request the last two years of records.

*TIP* You should only submit treatment records that are relevant to the service connected condition that the VA is proposing to reduce.  If you overwhelm the VA with hundreds of pages of records, there is a good chance they will be overlooked or not thoroughly reviewed by the VA.

  1. 5.Ask for Buddy statements.

Ask your friends, family, and co-workers to write letters on your behalf about symptoms they can observe of the service connected disability.  Laypersons cannot diagnose conditions, but they are able to testify as to the symptoms readily observable.  For example, a friend can write that a Veteran with PTSD once socialized on a regular basis, but that he rarely sees him now because he won’t leave the house.  Another example is a spouse writing on behalf of a Veteran with service connected knee injury who can only walk a few blocks before he has to stop due to pain.

  1. 6.Know the legal standards.

Many VA adjudicators are overworked, under trained, and don’t  understand the nuances of VA law.  One of the most powerful things you can do for yourself, is educate yourself on the requirements the VA must meet before it may lawfully reduce a disability rating level.  If the requirements are not met, the improperly reduced benefits must be reinstated.  The rules that protect Veterans against reductions in ratings vary depending on how long the rating level has been in effect.

Five years or more.  Any rating evaluation that has been continued at the same level for five years or more, may not be reduced unless all the evidence of record shows “sustained improvement” in the disability.  Sustained improvement means the disability has not temporarily improved and the improvement will be maintained under the ordinary conditions of life, such as at work.

Less than five years.  The VA must determine if there has been an actual change in the disability.  Further, any improvement must reflect an improvement in the Veteran’s ability to function under the ordinary conditions of life and work.  Lastly, the examination reports reflecting any change must be based on thorough examinations.  For example, an exam is not thorough if it does not discuss the symptoms found in the treatment records.

Twenty years.  If a disability has been continuously rated at a particular rating level for twenty years or more, the VA cannot reduce the rating below that level unless it discovers that the rating was based on fraud.  For example, if a Veteran is granted 30 percent for PTSD and for the next twenty years the rating varies between 30 percent and 100 percent, the rating cannot be reduced below 30 percent in the absence of fraud. The twenty year protection rule applies even to rating levels that are assigned retroactively because a previous final decision is revised based on a finding of clear and unmistakable error.

  1. 7.Appeal if necessary.

If you do steps 1-6, but the VA still reduces your service connected disability rating, don’t fret!  Even if the VA reduces your rating, you can still appeal that decision.   If you want to contest the reduction, you have one year from the date of the final determination to file VA Form 21-0958, Notice of Disagreement.  It is advisable to speak with a VA accredited attorney or representative before submitting your appeal.  If it is found that the ratings were made without observance of law, the rating will be reinstated and the Veteran will be back paid to the date of the erroneous reduction.

Edward M. Farmer is a U.S. Army Veteran and attorney. A majority of his career has been dedicated to assisting Veterans.  More information regarding Edward and his law firm can be found at www.Vetlawoffice.com

The material and information contained on these pages and on any pages linked from these pages are intended to provide general information only and not legal advice. You should consult with an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction before relying upon any of the information presented here.

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Did the VA lowball your VA PTSD rating? Here’s how to find out.

Low Ball

 

The day was just like any other day. Until you checked your mail. The big brown envelope was in it, with the VA logo in the upper left corner. You knew it was your VA PTSD Rating Decision. It’s about time – you filed yourPTSD service-connection claim18 months ago. “Why does the VA take so long,” you think. “It shouldn’t be that hard for the VA to service connect PTSD.”

You tear off the envelope open expecting to see a 70%, or 100% rating. That dude in your unit who was there that day – and saw the same things you did – got a 70%, and he seems to be having an easier go of life than you.

Part of you is excited. That extra compensation is going to make a difference. You are struggling to make ends meet as it is. You got fired from the last job for getting upset with your boss. The job before that you quit because all the people moving around that place wanting to talk made you jumpy and anxious.

When you read the letter, your heart sinks. Then, a wave of anger and frustration.

10%. That’s what they gave you. The same rating they give to every Veteran with tinnitus.

Where do you go? What do you do?

First, it is important to know that you are not alone – the VA is not out to get you, and didn’t do this as retaliation against you.

I’m serious about that: the VA is just plain incompetent when it comes to rating most medical conditions. Most of their raters try to do a good job – many are Veterans themselves – but the VA doesn’t give them training. VA management has created a culture of hostility and back-stabbing where all problems are blamed on the “unions.”  Don’t let me go down THAT rabbit hole.

A lot of Veterans – some worse off than you, some better off than you – have a diagnosis of service-connected PTSD and find themselves “low-balled” with a rating that is much lower than that of their peers and that does not reflect the severity of their medical condition and the affect it is having on their lives.

When it comes time to appeal that low rating though, most Veterans have something else in common: they don’t have the tools to adequately challenge the low VA PTSD rating and don’t know where to start even if they did.

I’m going to give you some ideas to deal with the lowball VA PTSD rating.

The #1 thing to consider when your VA PTSD Rating is low-balled.

There is nothing wrong with getting a professional to help you.

VA PTSD claims can be really tough, even on straightforward facts. Recently, I talked to a Vet who witnessed some horrible, horrible things during the invasion of Panama that messed him for a long time and put him on a path to opioid abuse and homelessness. The VA denied him service connection for PTSD.

At my own firm, I’ve gone to the Veterans Court many times to straighten the BVA out on low-balled VA PTSD ratings. I’vestopped them from symptom hunting. I’ve seen ratings so bad that the Veterans Court found the BVA’s actions “disconcerting.”  And we stopped the BVA from an absurd decision that gave a 30% PTSD rating to a Veteran who had regular hallucinations due to his trauma.

These cases are hard to fight – there are so many traps for the unwary that just add stress and anxiety to a situation that probably already has too much.

And I’m here to tell you, if I was fighting the VA on my own PTSD claim, there is only one attorney I would get to help me:Matt Hill.

I don’t recommend people very often on the Veterans Law Blog® – it’s not what we are trying to do here. I”m trying to educate Veterans, not shill for other businesses. I’ll tell you about lawyers, and experts, but I rarely make suggestions.

I’ve known Matt for almost 10 years now, and he knows his stuff when it comes to PTSD claims.Click here to watch a quick interview with him a couple years back– use the form on that page and it will email him your info and ask for a consultation. And you can absolutely tell him that Chris Attig said he was the best.

But don’t let me pressure you: if you want to handle your own VA PTSD rating appeal – and many, many Veterans do so successfully without having to pay an attorney or stress out over a non-responsive VSO – the rest of this post is a good place to start figuring things out.

So, I’m going to walk you through 9 Things that might help you get the VA PTSD rating you are entitled to.

These are  not the ONLY 9 things, and every case is different. Let’s get started.

Understand where your VA PTSD rating fits in the 4 Pillars.

When we talk about a VA Claim, we talk about simplifying it bybuilding the 4 Pillars.

The 4 Pillars are the 4 things that every Veteran, in every VA claim, needs to prove before they will recover service-connected disability compensation.

Impairment ratings – or the way that the symptoms of your service-connected condition are equated to a percentage and a dollar value – are the 3rd Pillar.

The VA PTSD rating table is a little intimidating at first. It’s a jumble of sentence fragments, a massive list of symptoms, written by government bureaucrats that have long since forgotten how to communicate with earth people. Take a look:

Low Ball 02

That right there, my friends, is the definition of “impenetrable jargon.”

Here are 9 pointers to help you evaluate the rating in yourVA PTSD claim.

#9: Did you File your VA Claim – the Right Way?

The 2 biggest errors that Veterans make in their VA Claims – and the 2 errors that cause them to get stuck in the VA backlog for longer and longer periods of time, are these:

  1. They filed their claim and expected the VA to do the work – or to do the RIGHT work – in developing the claim.
  2. They didn’t “connect the dots” for the VA in a simple straightforward way that made the VA Rater WANT to grant the claim.

What does that mean in the context of a VA PTSD rating? Usually, it means the Veteran dumped 3, 5, or 10 years of mental health treatment records, and a couple handwritten statements on a VA Form 21-4138, on the VA and hoped the rater would see how bad things were.

Remember, they don’t get training. And they see so darn many claims that they aren’t going to spend but a few minutes deciding your VA PTSD rating.

You can avoid those solutions byFiling Your VA Claim – the Right Way – from the very start.

It’s a simple fact that if you put the RIGHT evidence into your claim, and explain in a very clean and basic way how that evidence shows your sleep apnea is service connected, your claim will go quicker.

And you will probably get better results.

When you are ready to start learning How to File Your VA Claim the right way, click here & read this  post.

#8:  The best-kept secret in a VA PTSD Rating are the Bankhead and the Mauerhan cases.

The Code of Federal Regulations – before listing the PTSD rating criteria in DC 9411 – says that when rating PTS, the VA should consider symptoms “such as” those listed.

That’s key language – as the Courts told us in Mauerhan.

You don’t have to find  ALL the factors on the list to qualify for a particular rating.  You just have to make a case for your symptoms being similar to the symptoms listed at the rating level you believe you are entitled to.

And what the Courts told us in Bankhead is that the VA is supposed to look HOLISTICALLY at your medical condition when assigning a rating for PTSD. I’m not going to get into Bankhead in too much detail here. I write a blog to help lawyers learn Veterans law, and have written about Bankhead.

#7: Occupational Impairment factors are more important for VA PTSD Rating purposes.

I’ve reviewed hundreds, if not thousands of Veterans C-Files.

When the VA PTSD rating is too low, a common reason I have seen is that the Veteran focused on the social impairment factors, and not the occupational impairment factors.

Take a look at all the factors in the 50% category for PTSD.

In addition to equating those symptoms to your social life (home, family, friends and social interactions), relate them to your ability or inability to get or keep a job.

#6:  The VA PTSD rating criteria is NOT a complete list of PTSD symptoms.

Remember that the list of symptoms on this list are not meant to be every possible symptom.

If you have symptoms, or manifestations of symptoms of your PTSD that are not on this list (and there are plenty), see which ones on the list are similar to yours. And then make that argument – that your symptom is like such-and-such a symptom of the 70% rating.

The list of symptoms in the table above is not as a comprehensive listing of PTSD symptomatology. Think of it as an objective tool that was supposed to help make sure Veterans get rated as consistently as possible when PTSD affects them in similar ways.

#5: Did the VA examiner consider the frequency, severity and chronicity of PTSD symptomatology?

This is one thing that C&P Examiners overlook the most often. They hunt-and-peck through your medical records for a symptom that matches the one on the rating list, and if they don’t find it, they move on and give you a 10% rating. This is called “symptom-hunting” and it misses the whole point of Bankhead, discussed above.

To make a “holistic analysis” of your mental health condition’s impact on your life, the VA rater must consider the frequency, chronicity and severity of your PTSD in work and social settings.

Rarely do C&P exams for Veterans with a PTSD claim discuss how long the symptoms last or the length of any periods of “remission”. Sometimes, they discount the resilience/remission factors so much so that they change the Veteran’s diagnosis altogether.

For example, we were able to get one Veteran a higher PTSD rating by showing that her “resilience” was not as high as one might thing from frequent periods of remission: because of the nature of her symptoms, she still had significant social and occupational impairment limitations during the “remission” period.

#4:  Did the VA consider ALL of the evidence in the record?

Far too often, VA C&P examiners focus on the most recent symptomatology.   The doctor has to look at the whole of the evidence of the record.

One thing you can consider doing is making a copy of any medical recordrelating to your PTSDout of your C-File.

Organize those documents from your C-File in chronological order, and type up an EASY to read outline of the chronology of your symptoms – keep it to 1 page, double spaced, so it’s easy to read.

Share it with your C&P Doc, and ask them to put the chronology in your C-File when they are done.

Don’t argue your position, just hand it to the doc and say “Here’s the chronology of my condition, if it helps you, use it.  If not, just put it in my C-File.”

This is really hard to do if you don’t have your C-File – here’show to get a copy of your C-File.

#3:  What is the GAF scale?

TheGAF scale is a subjective rating, on a scale of 0 to 100, for a doctor to “evaluate” a Veteran’s overall psychological, social and occupational functioning.  The higher the score, the more ability the Veteran has – in theory – to function in a wide range of activities.

Problem is, GAF scores are nonsense. Seriously, ask a psychiatrist or psychologist how they come up with a GAF score. They pick a number out of thin air that “feels right.” One doctor could give you a GAF score of 30 (low functioning). Another could give you a GAF score of 60 (reasonably high functioning). For the same symptoms.

So, in DSM-V, the medical profession threw GAF scoring to the crap-pile.

Even still, I see many, many PTSD ratings that give heavy consideration to GAF scores over actualobjective medical and lay evidence of PTSD symptomatology.

In current claims, the GAF score is no longer used – however, many VA Raters still wrongly use the GAF score and in some claims, the appeal is based on the law at the time of the denial, which may have involved use of the GAF Score.

This is CRITICAL: if you have a claim or appeal filed after August 14, 2014, and the VA or BVA is using GAF scores, they are very likely rating your claim wrong.

#2:  Don’t let the VA rate you based on the ABSENCE of factors for a particular level.

I really think that if the VA wouldget away from using “negative evidence”, 80% of the backlog would be cleared out.

Seriously – I think I see this error in nearly every case I look at.  The VA cannot usually consider the absence of evidence as proof of anything.

If your VA PTSD rating talks about how you DON’T have certain symptoms or problems, you need toget in touch with a lawyer ASAP. The way to fix this is a legal argument, coupled with a long-term appeal strategy.

Find out how tochoose the best attorney for your VA appeal in this free eBook.

#1:  Did you downplay your symptomatology at the C&P Exam?

Many Veterans get dressed up in their “Sunday best” for their Comp & Pen exam, believing that they are more persuasive when they “present” well.

Other Veterans refuse to shower, shave, or wear clean clothes, based on the suggestion of some random Veteran in a facebook group.

BOTH approaches are wrong.

Remember, doctors can assess the symptoms in your records – AND the symptoms they observe.  When itcomes to your appearance at the C&P exam, BE your symptoms.

More importantly, don’t downplay your situation.

Let the doctor see, and hear, how bad your PTSD is affecting you.

Vietnam Veterans out there tend to be serious hard-asses, and refuse to tell people when they are hurting.

I’m not judging at all – I am saying that the time to downplay your symptomatology is NOT during your PTSD C&P exam. (By contrast, you don’t want to exaggerate your symptoms either).

The Veterans I see with PTSD ratings that are too low (or that later face ratings reduction problems because they were over-rated) all have one thing in common – they failed to follow the Golden Rule of PTSD C&P Exams: Just be yourself.

Here are some more tips for getting through a VA PTSD C&P exam – or any C&P exam for that matter.

Conclusion.

These tips for evaluating your VA PTSD Rating are worthless unless you have your C-File.

Without your C-File, youcan’t know how much weight the VA is wrongly putting on arbitrary GAF scoresfrom 10 years ago, whether all of your medical records made it into the VA’s hands, or whether there is something really damaging in your file (like some VA C&P examiner down in Florida who finds every Veteran is malingering, over-reporting, or under-reporting symptoms without explaining what those terms mean, medically).

Here’s where I show youmy Firm gets C-Files from the VA.

I hope these tips helped – let me know if you have any thoughts or questions.

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