VA Claims: Disabled Veterans Community|Hadit.com

VA DISABILITY BENEFITS: Opportunities Exist to Better Ensure Successful Appeals Reform GAO-18-349T: Published: Jan 30, 2018

What GAO Found

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) plan for implementing a new disability appeals process while attending to appeals in the current process addresses most, but not all, elements required by the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 (Act). VA’s appeals plan addresses 17 of 22 required elements, partially addresses 4, and does not address 1. For example, not addressed is the required element to include the resources needed by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Board) to implement the new appeals process and address legacy appeals under the current process. VA needs this information to certify, as specified under the Act, that it has sufficient resources to implement appeals reform and make timely appeals decisions under the new and legacy processes.
VA’s appeals plan reflects certain sound planning practices, but it could benefit from including important details in several key planning areas:
Performance measurement: VA’s plan reflects steps taken to track performance, but could articulate a more complete and balanced set of goals and measures for monitoring and assessing performance on a range of dimensions of success. Specifically, the plan reports that VA is developing a process to track timeliness of the new and legacy processes. However, contrary to sound planning practices, the plan does not include timeliness goals for all five appeals options available to veterans, does not include goals or measures for additional aspects of performance (such as accuracy or cost), and does not explain how VA will monitor or assess the new process compared to the legacy process. Unless VA clearly articulates a complete and balanced set of goals and measures, it could inadvertently incentivize staff to focus on certain aspects of appeals performance over others or fail to improve overall service to veterans.
Project management: VA’s plan includes a master schedule for implementing the new appeals plan; however, this schedule falls short of sound practices because it does not include key planned activities—such as its pilot test of two of the five appeals options. In addition, the schedule does not reflect other sound practices for guiding implementation and establishing accountability—such as articulating interim goals and needed resources for, and interdependencies among, activities. Unless VA augments its master schedule to include all key activities and reflect sound practices, VA may be unable to provide reasonable assurance that it has the essential program management information needed for this complex and important effort.
Risk assessment: VA has taken steps to assess and mitigate some risks related to appeals reform by, for example, pilot testing two of the five appeals options through its Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP). However, as designed, RAMP does not include key features of a well-developed and documented pilot test. For example, VA has not articulated how it will assess RAMP before proceeding with full implementation. In addition, RAMP is not pilot testing three options and, as a result, VA will not have data on the extent to which veterans will appeal directly to the Board when given the option. Unless VA identifies and mitigates key risks associated with implementing a new process, VA is taking a chance that untested aspects will not perform as desired.

Why GAO Did This Study

VA’s disability compensation program pays cash benefits to veterans with disabilities connected to their military service. In recent years, the number of appeals of VA’s benefit decisions has been rising. For decisions made on appeal in fiscal year 2017, veterans waited an average of 3 years for resolution by either VBA or the Board, and 7 years for resolution by the Board. The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 makes changes to VA’s current (legacy) appeals process, giving veterans new options to have their claims further reviewed by VBA or appeal directly to the Board. The Act requires VA to submit to Congress and GAO a plan for implementing a new appeals process, and includes a provision for GAO to assess VA’s plan.
This testimony focuses on the extent to which VA’s plan: (1) addresses the required elements in the Act, and (2) reflects sound planning practices identified in prior GAO work. GAO’s work entailed reviewing and assessing VA’s appeals plan and related documents against sound planning practices, and soliciting VA’s views on GAO’s assessments.

What GAO Recommends

In its forthcoming report, GAO is considering recommending that VA: fully address all legally required elements in its appeals plan, articulate how it will monitor and assess the new appeals process as compared to the legacy process, augment its master schedule for implementation, and more fully address risk.

Full Report

Accessible Version

VA Contracting: Improvements in Buying Medical and Surgical Supplies Could Yield Cost Savings and Efficiency

[no_toc]Last year VA launched a new program to streamline purchasing supplies for their medical centers.
As GAO lays out what the VA needed to do for the program to be successful

  • A strong strategic plan
  • Stable leadership
  • Good communications
  • Stakeholder buy-in

GAO found Veterans Affairs was missing these elements when it launched the program; as a result, the program has yet to achieve key goals of cost savings and greater efficiency.

Highlights from the report:

What GAO Found

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) established the Medical Surgical Prime Vendor-Next Generation (MSPV-NG) program to provide an efficient, cost-effective way for its facilities to order supplies, but its initial implementation was flawed, lacked an overarching strategy, stable leadership, and sufficient workforce that could have facilitated medical center buy-in. VA developed requirements for a broad range of MSPV-NG items with limited clinical input. As a result, the program has not met medical centers’ needs, and usage remains far below VA’s 40 percent target. VA also established cost avoidance as a goal for MSPV-NG, but currently only has a metric in place to measure broader supply chain cost avoidance, not savings specific to MSPV-NG. Also, starting in June 2015, VA planned to award competitive contracts for MSPV-NG items, but instead, 79 percent were added using non-competitive agreements. (See figure.) This was done primarily to meet VA’s December 2016 deadline to establish the formulary, the list of items available for purchase through MSPV-NG.

Total Number of Items by Award Type on MSPV-NG Formulary, Jan. 2017

Total Number of Items by Award Type on MSPV-NG Formulary, Jan. 2017
The roll-out of MSPV-NG ran counter to practices of leading hospitals that GAO spoke with, which highlighted key steps, such as prioritizing supply categories and obtaining continuing clinician input to guide decision-making. VA has taken steps to address some deficiencies identified in the first phase of implementation and is considering a new approach for this program. However, until VA addresses the existing shortcomings in the MSPV-NG program, such as the lack of medical center buy-in, it will face challenges in meeting its goals.
Medical centers often rely on emergency procurements to obtain routine goods and services—some of which could be made available at lower cost via MSPV-NG. Sixteen of the 18 contracts in GAO’s sample were not competed, which puts the government at risk of paying more. For instance, one medical center procured medical gas on an emergency basis through consecutive non-competitive contracts over a 3-year period. VA policy clearly defines emergency actions; however, inefficiencies in planning, funding, and communication at the medical centers contributed to emergency procurements, resulting in the contracting officers quickly awarding contracts with no competition.

Why GAO Did This Study

VA medical centers spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on medical supplies and services. In December 2016, VA instituted a major change in how it purchases medical supplies—the MSPV-NG program—to gain effectiveness and efficiencies.
GAO was asked to examine VA’s transition to the MSPV-NG program and its use of emergency procurements. This report assesses the extent to which (1) VA’s implementation of MSPV-NG was effective in meeting program goals, and (2) VA awards contracts on an emergency basis. GAO analyzed VA’s MSPV-NG requirements development and contracting processes, and identified key supply chain practices cited by four leading hospital networks. GAO also reviewed a non-generalizable sample of 18 contracts designated in VA’s database as emergency procurements with high dollar values; and met with contracting, logistics, and clinical officials at 6 medical centers, selected based on high dollar contract obligations in fiscal years 2014-2016 and geographic representation.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making 10 recommendations, including that VA expand clinician input in requirements development, calculate MSPV-NG cost avoidance, establish a plan for awarding future competitive contracts, and identify opportunities to strategically procure supplies and services frequently purchased on an emergency basis. VA agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

Will PTSD NEXUS letter, from VA Psychologist help my NOD-I already submitted a Nexus?


 Question. Will submitting a NEXUS letter  for PTSD, from my VA Psychologist help my NOD if I have already submitted a Nexus from my Private Psychologist for PTSD?


A veteran who is diagnosed with PTSD that is related to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity does not need to provide stressor corroboration evidence as long as a VA psychologist or psychiatrist has diagnosed the PTSD and says that the stressor is related to the veteran’s fear of hostile military or terrorist activity. If a veteran’s stressor is adequate to support a diagnosis of PTSD, that stressor is consistent with the circumstances of the veteran’s service, and there is no clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, the veteran’s own statements may be used to establish the occurrence of the claimed stressor.
PTSD FactsWhat is fear of hostile military or terrorist activity? The veteran must have experienced, witnessed, or been confronted with an event or circumstance that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of the vet or others, such as from an actual or potential improvised explosive device; vehicle-embedded explosive device; incoming artillery, rocket, or mortar fire; grenade; small arms fire, including suspected sniper fire; or attack upon friendly military aircraft, and the veteran’s response to the event or circumstance must have involved a psychological or psycho-physiological state of fear, helplessness, or horror.
This lower burden of proof applies to all veterans, regardless of where they experience the fear of hostile military or terrorist activity, but it does not include sexual assault or hostile criminal actions of US military personnel directed against other US military personnel. It also only applies to claims received on or pending after July 13, 2010. If a veteran has a previously denied PTSD claim, in order to reopen the claim under this lower burden of proof standard, he or she would need a lay statement of his or her fear of hostile military or terrorist activity and service records that show service in an area involving exposure to hostile military or terrorist activity.
It is important to note that while this lower burden of proof requires a diagnosis by a VA psychologist or psychiatrist, a diagnosis by a non-VA practitioner and a veteran’s statement describing an in-service stressor relating to a fear of hostile military or terrorist activity should be enough to trigger the VA’s duty to assist by scheduling a VA PTSD exam.
Go to step 3.
NOTE: If a veteran is attempting to get service connection for PTSD under this lower burden of proof standard, but the VA psychologist or psychiatrist’s opinion states that the doctor does not believe that the veteran’s PTSD is related to a fear of hostile military or terrorist activity, the veteran should attempt to gather corroborating evidence of the stressor, which another doctor can use as a basis for a medical nexus opinion under step 3.

Did the claimed stressor occur during combat?


Similar to veterans who were diagnosed with PTSD during service, there is a lower burden of proof for combat veterans when it comes to stressor corroboration evidence. Essentially, the VA admits that when a veteran is engaged in combat, his or her primary focus is going to be carrying out the mission, not taking notes on any and all injuries. If a veteran’s stressor is related to combat, that stressor is consistent with the circumstances of the veteran’s service, and there is no clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, the veteran’s own statements may be used to establish the occurrence of the claimed stressor.
PTSD Facts Vietnam WarThe VA Adjudications Procedures Manual M21-1MR (available on the VA website) defines combat as “personal participation in events constituting an actual fight or encounter with a military foe or hostile unit or instrumentality. It includes presence during such events either as a combatant, or service member performing duty in support of combatants, such as providing medical care to the wounded.” Even a brief participation in combat triggers the lower burden of proof. But, depending on the circumstances, it is important to note that the veteran may have an additional hurdle in proving that he or she was in combat.
For some veterans, this is a simple task due to their military service records or military occupational specialty (MOS) and where or when they served. But for other veterans, it may not be obvious at first glance that they served in combat. For these veterans, the VA will look to not only military service records and MOS, but also certain military decorations, buddy statements, letters home to family or friends, copies of newspapers or regimental or divisional newsletters, photographs, or any other credible supporting evidence that can help to establish whether the veteran was in combat or not. If a veteran contends that he was in combat action that cannot be confirmed by his or her MOS or military service records, the VA must make a finding as to the credibility of his or her statement and provide reasons for its finding of whether the veteran engaged in combat, keeping in mind the benefit of the doubt rule.
At this stage, if a veteran states that he served in combat and identifies a stressor that is not impossible to believe, and has a current diagnosis of PTSD (see step 1), then the VA must take steps to develop evidence. The VA will look for evidence of both combat service and additional evidence that the combat stressor actually took place. It is usually a good idea for the veteran to request these records as well. Relevant service records may be found at the National Personnel Records Center, the US Army and Joint Services Records Research Center, the Marine Corps Archives and Special Collections, and the National Archives.
Once it is established that the veteran served in combat, the VA must also accept lay evidence as proof that the alleged stressor happened during combat even in the absence of official records or supporting clinical evidence. Even if the veteran does not have any other evidence that the stressor occurred other than his or her own statement, as long as there is not clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, the VA is obligated to apply the benefit of the doubt rule and accept the veteran’s own statement as proof that the stressor occurred. Go to step 3.

Is the stressor related to an in-service personal assault or trauma, including Military Sexual Trauma (MST)?


If a veteran suffers from PTSD as a result of an in-service personal assault or trauma such as rape, physical assault, domestic battering, robbery, mugging, stalking, or harassment, the stressor can be corroborated through alternative evidence if military records do not document that a personal assault occurred. The VA has a special obligation to assist in these cases (commonly referred to as Military Sexual Trauma or MST) and must inform the veteran that evidence other than that found in service records may be submitted. PTSD Facts MSTAlternative sources for evidence may be things such as records from law enforcement, rape crisis centers, mental health counseling centers, hospitals, or physicians; pregnancy or STD tests; statements from family members, roommates, fellow service members, or clergy; a personal diary or journal; or evidence of behavior changes such as a request to transfer, deterioration in work performance, substance abuse, depression, panic attacks, or anxiety. Unfortunately, these cases are frequently denied, partly due to the fact that VA has difficulty compensating for disabilities that are less obvious than a physical disability, and because due to the nature of MST cases it is rare for there to be a formal report or complaint in the record. The VA often must rely on the alternative evidence listed above, and typically fails to give that evidence the weight that is required. PTSD claims in general are difficult to win, but MST claims are even tougher.
According to a June 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office, since 2008, there have been 29,000 veterans who have sought disability benefits for problems related to MST. PTSD is the most common disability claimed as a result of MST at 94 percent of claims, with major depressive disorder and anxiety disorder being the second and third most common. The overall approval rating for PTSD related to MST is up from 28 percent in 2010 to roughly 50 percent in 2013, but this is still lower than the 55 percent approval rating for other forms of PTSD (Note: According to a report by the ACLU and Service Women’s Action Network, between 2008 and 2012, the award of MST-related PTSD claims was lower than the rate of other PTSD claims by between 16.5 and 29.6 percent each year). Also of note is the wide disparity among regional offices: in some ROs as few as 14 percent of claims were approved, while other ROs approved as many as 88 percent of claims. The GAO report found that regional offices are having ongoing difficulty applying broadened MST standards and may differ wildly in their interpretations of the evidence in the claim file.
Another hurdle identified in the GAO report is the variation in the thoroughness of C&P examinations for MST claims. In fact, during the only formal training for VA examiners who are conducting MST exams, less than 5% of the one-hour certification course for PTSD examiners is devoted to MST. This goes to show that there is still a lot of work and training that needs to be done on the VA side in regards to MST claims, which can be discouraging for many veterans. But just remember that while MST claims take time, they are not impossible to win. The key is to get the VA to look at the stressor evidence in the right context in order to show, for example, a behavior change that corroborates the occurrence of the stressor. See Part Seven for a list of resources for survivors of MST.
Go to step 3.


If a veteran’s claim for PTSD does not fit into one of the above categories, there must be evidence that corroborates the occurrence of the stressor, meaning credible supporting evidence that the claimed in-service stressor occurred. The supporting evidence must include more than the veteran’s own testimony. Unless there is no reasonable possibility that assistance by the VA would aid in substantiating the claim, the VA must assist the veteran in developing evidence that supports the existence of a stressor.
2.2 PTSD Facts Non-OEF or OIF vetsFor the veteran’s service records to corroborate the stressor, they do not need to include every detail of the event. If there is independent evidence of the occurrence of a stressful event and that evidence shows the veteran’s personal exposure to the event, that could be sufficient corroborative evidence. In addition, credible supporting evidence can come from lay sources such as buddy statements.
An example of a situation in which a veteran would need stressor corroboration evidence is if he or she was in a bad car accident during service, the car accident was not related to combat, and the veteran was not diagnosed with PTSD until after leaving service. In this situation, the veteran would need to be able to corroborate that the car accident happened. This may be through a police report, hospital records, statements of the other individuals involved in the accident, or other supporting evidence. Another situation in which corroboration evidence would be required is if a veteran was involved in an accident during a non-combat situation, such as an explosion or fire. Again, hospital records, notations in service records, and statements of other persons who witnessed the explosion would be helpful corroboration evidence.
It is important to note that if a veteran’s account of an event is contradicted by official records, the VA can reject the veteran’s account, but as long as the veteran produces evidence to back up his or her story, the benefit of the doubt rule still applies.
Go to step 3.
The final step of establishing service connection for PTSD is proving a causal nexus between the current symptomatology and the claimed in-service stressor. This step requires an opinion by a medical expert. The evidence must show that the stressor was at least a contributory basis for the current symptoms. As long as there is a clear relationship between the stressor encountered in service and the current diagnosis of PTSD, a veteran whose service medical records show no evidence of a mental disorder can be entitled to service connection for PTSD, even if the PTSD develops many years after service.
Note that this step can be more complicated if a veteran has more than one stressor. For example, say a veteran was in a car accident in service in which his best friend was killed, and there are service records and hospital records backing up this stressor.  The second stressor was when the vet was in his bunk and some fellow soldiers came in the room and threw a grenade at him.  The grenade was a dummy, but the veteran did not know that, and he still has nightmares about it.  There is no independent verification of this stressor.  For the veteran to receive service connected compensation for his PTSD, the doctor would have to relate his PTSD specifically to the car accident in service because that is the only stressor with independent verification, and the second stressor does not qualify under one of the lower burden of proof situations mentioned in step 2. And remember, the VA will always send the veteran to a Compensation and Pension exam to determine if the veteran is entitled service connected disability benefits for his PTSD.
Continue to Part Three to learn more about Compensation & Pension exams for PTSD.

Introduction – PTSD Guide

Here’s a good write up of the process flow for PTSD Claims from Hill and Ponton

Part 2 – PTSD Service Connection Flowchart

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