A VA Appeal can be an arduous process. In addition to the fact that the burden is typically on you alone to demonstrate that you have a service connected injury or disability, you also have to understand the purpose and different steps in the appeal timeline. Whether it’s a Notice of Disagreement (NOD), Decision Review Officer (DRO) Hearing, or Statement of the Case (SOC), or BVA Hearing, you could benefit from insight into what to expect, and what to do. And if we’re representing you in your appeal, what we’ll be doing on your behalf.
This is Part 2 of a 4 part series of articles that aims to help you get more familiar with your BVA appeal. Don’t miss the other three parts:
Part 1: Notice of Disagreement
Part 3: Statement of the Case
Part 4: BVA Hearing
What is a Decision Review Officer?
An adjudicator is a person that reviews your disability claim to determine whether you rate the compensation or pension that you are pursuing. They make the final determination on your claim and issue your ratings decision. A Decision Review Officer is a senior adjudicator. This may mean they are even contracted out of retirement to review claims requesting DRO review.
What am I Committing to with the Decision Review Officer Process?
The important thing to remember about a DRO review is that it’s optional. You can fore-go a DRO review if you choose and you’ll just be moved to the next step, where you’ll get a request for more evidence, and at some point you’ll get a statement of the case (SOC) issued to you. We’ll cover that in the next part of this series. However, should you elect a DRO review you can expect a second pass on the information you initially provided in your claim.
It’s not uncommon for a DRO to review the ratings you were initially offered/denied and see that there were mistakes or misunderstandings. The initial claims raters (adjudicators) don’t have a lot of time to spend on each determination, and in some cases that haste leads to poor or occasionally completely incorrect ratings decisions. A DRO usually has more time to look at the components of your claim, and even to reach out to you for specific details. They also have the ability at any time to make a determination in your favor.
What’s Going to Happen in the DRO Review?
Once you elect to receive a DRO review a DRO will be assigned to review your initial claim and the ratings decision(s) you are appealing. The DRO has the ability to take a much deeper look at your claim and they may elect to communicate with you informally to request more information on a specific area. They may also setup a DRO hearing, which is similar to a Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) hearing, except for the fact that you can have a bit more of a discussion. When you’re at a BVA hearing, the judge receiving your case won’t say, “I need to see item X, and I can make this determination,” whereas a DRO can very much discuss things on those terms.
For this reason, anytime you have an opportunity to speak with a DRO, consider asking in terms of, “what evidence can I provide to you, that you don’t have, would help you to make a determination in favor of the appeal?”
What if the DRO Concludes the Same Thing as the Initial Determination?
It’s very possible that a DRO review will find the same as the initial ratings decision, or that in DRO review your appeal(s) are partially addressed, but not completely addressed. Depending on the outcome, you have a couple options.
1) If the DRO finds the same as the initial ratings decision, you’ll be notified and your next step will likely involve receiving a Statement of the Case, so that you can prepare for a Board of Veterans Appeals Hearing. Your appeal is not dead by a long shot! Many appeals are granted at the BVA level that are not granted at the DRO level simply because a judge has more latitude in making determinations that would be consistent with the law, whereas a DRO has to stay within the policies that already exist.
2) If the DRO finds that some aspect of your appeal merits a different rating, they may grant that. At which point you’ll be provided a new ratings decision. You can then file a NOD with that ratings decision (go back to step 1).
If you’re confused about what to do from here, make sure to talk to an attorney or other Veterans advocate.