When you file for VA disability, you must prove a connection to your military service. But what about secondary connections between your disability and other conditions?
While there may be a primary disability for which you’re filing a claim, many service-related disabilities can cause other secondary disabilities or ailments.
For instance, you may have a service-related disability in your knee with a certain disability rating determined by the VA.
Yet you might also have a debilitating back condition caused by your knee. Your back condition keeps you from working. Thus, the back condition should also impact your disability rating and level of benefits.
Some common secondary disabilities include:
- Heart conditions
- Nerve damage
- Sleep apnea
- Organ damage
- Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions
A few direct disabilities that may lead to secondary disabilities include:
- Back injuries or disabilities
- Leg, knee, and foot disabilities
These conditions can be difficult to cope with physically and emotionally. Thankfully, secondary service connections may be covered by VA disability benefits.
Secondary connections have a different burden of proof from service-related disabilities. They must be proven by a doctor to be cause or worsened by a service-related disability, rather than by your service itself.
It can be crucial to prove secondary conditions to receive your full disability rating and maximize your benefits.
Here are the facts when it comes to filing for VA disability secondary connections.
First, File for Your Primary VA Disability
It’s important for the VA to recognize your primary service disability and have assigned a disability rating for it.
A primary VA disability is defined as one of the following:
- Pre-service disability—an illness or injury before you joined the military, and serving worsened the condition.
- In-service disability—you got sick or injured while serving in the military and can link your current condition to the illness or injury.
- Post-service disability—you have a disability that didn’t appear until after you ended your active-duty service, but can be medically proven to be connected to your service.
You can file at any time including up to 180 days prior to leaving the service. However, filing as soon as possible after the disability first appears is preferable. This is because the longer you wait, the harder it is to prove a medical connection to your service.
Next, File for Your Secondary VA Disability
To file a secondary claim, you would follow the same process as you did for your initial disability claim, by filing VA Form 21-526 or VA Form 21-526EZ.
There are several ways to apply.
- In most cases, you can apply online.
- You can visit your VA regional office.
- You can print the form and send it to:
Department of Veterans Affairs
Claims Intake Center
PO Box 4444
Janesville, WI 53547-4444
When you file, you’ll need to prove either that your service-related disability caused your secondary condition, or it aggravated or worsened an existing condition.
This means providing medical evidence connecting your service disability to your secondary disability.
Medical Evidence: Proving a Nexus Connection
The most crucial part of proving a secondary connection is having proper medical evidence. You must have records that show when your secondary disability symptoms began, as well as how the severity has progressed over time.
You must also use evidence such as service records, medical records, and doctors’ opinions to prove the secondary disability was caused or worsened by a service-related disability.
To do this, you need a nexus letter from your VA or private doctor, which is a written professional opinion establishing this link using medical evidence.
What Your Secondary VA Disability Rating Means
Your secondary VA disability claim may play a crucial role in establishing your combined disability rating.
For instance, let’s go back to our earlier example of a service-related knee injury. Your original claim may net you a range of disability ratings based on the severity and type of injury.
However, if your secondary disability is debilitating, you need to be rated for this as well or you won’t qualify for the VA benefits you deserve.
If your knee injury gets you a 30% disability rating, a severe enough secondary condition or conditions could potentially raise that rating to 100% and increase your benefits.
Based on medical evidence and a potential C&P claim exam performed by the VA, your combined disability rating will include ratings for all individual disabilities.
The VA uses a formula called the “whole person theory” to combine your disability ratings without allowing them to go above 100%.
The combined rating will determine the level of benefits you receive.
However, your rating may also increase if your disabilities worsen over time or lead to additional secondary disabilities.
How an Attorney Can Help with Your Claim
An attorney experienced in Veterans’ disability law can advise you, help you file appeals, assist you with proper and complete documentation, and can fight for you and with you as you navigate your next steps.
Filing a secondary claim can mean added effort and waiting on your part. It means more doctors visits, more documentation, and potential appeals. It can also lead to a disability rating you don’t feel matches your level of disability. Attorneys can act as an advocate on your behalf during this process.
An attorney can also:
- Identify strategies to maximize your best pathway to winning your claim
- Help navigate multiple claims or appeals
- Appeal for a higher disability rating
The law protects veterans specifically regarding legal fees and cases. Additionally, an initial consultation with attorneys at Affleck & Gordon is completely free.
If your VA Disability claim has been denied, or you’re thinking about filing and don’t know where to start, Affleck & Gordon can help. We’ve been helping people in Georgia just like you for decades. Sign up for a free case evaluation here, or call us (404) 795-7165.