Secondary Service Connection: When a Service Connected Disability Causes a Second Disability

If a veteran’s service connected condition leads to another disability, he might be able to get that other disability “secondarily” service connected.  If so, the VA will pay the veteran an additional amount of compensation every month for that secondarily service connected condition.  A good example of this is when a veteran has a chronic physical disability that’s service connected – like a back injury from a truck accident in the military – and the pain and limitation from that disability leads to depression.  In this case, the veteran might be able to get compensation for depression.  Another example is when a veteran is service connected for a left knee injury and starts favoring the right leg as a result, which then leads to a disability in the right knee.  Below are some tips on how to obtain secondary service connection.

1)   Use the right form.  The VA often rejects claims that aren’t on the proper forms.  As of the date of this blog, the form to use for a claim for disabilities secondary to an existing service connected disability is VA Form 21-526b.  The VA often changes its forms and updates them, so veterans should make sure they have the most recent form.  Usually the most updated forms are available online.

2)  Do some “homework” before the application is submitted.  To get a condition secondarily service connected, veterans need to have a medical diagnosis.  They are also going to need a connection, or a “nexus,” between the secondary condition and the service connected condition.  Veterans should ask their doctors for a letter stating what the diagnosis is and that it “at least as likely as not” resulted from the service connected condition.  The “at least as likely as not” language is what the VA looks for from treatment providers, so veterans should ask their doctors include it.

3)  Ask relatives and others for statements.  Who can say they have seen the veteran’s service connected condition cause a second one?  Often a spouse, sibling, parent, or friend can say something like, “since the veteran hurt her ankle so badly in the military and hasn’t been able to do what she used to and can no longer walk that far or drive a car, she has been terribly depressed . . .”   People should use the VA’s “Statement in Support of Claim” form for these statements, or VA Form 21-4138.  Again the form number and name are correct as of the date of this blog but the VA can change forms from one day to the next so people should double check that they are using the right form.

4)  The Veteran should write a statement.  Veterans should also write a statement, using the “Statement in Support of Claim” form explaining how they believe the service connected condition caused the secondary disability.  The veteran should detail when she first started having symptoms of the second condition, how it affects her, and how she’s treating the secondary disability.

5)  Show up and prepare for the compensation & pension exam if the VA schedules one.  If the VA thinks a veteran’s claim for secondary service connection might be valid, they will likely schedule a C&P exam.  This is where a doctor or nurse examines the veteran to confirm the diagnosis and make a judgment as to whether it likely resulted from the service connected condition.  Veterans need to go to these exams or the VA might deny the claim.  And they need to prepare for these exams by making copies of the supportive letters they got from their doctors and other statements and think through how they will explain why the condition was caused by the service connected disability.

6)  Keep copies of everything that’s sent into the VA and put identifying information on every page.  The VA often misplaces documents or they’re not uploaded into the VA system correctly.  Veterans need to be ready to re-send paperwork if this happens.  Because the VA receives thousands of pieces of paper every day, veterans need to put their name and VA file number on each page they send in.  This way if something gets out of order or confused with other papers, the VA knows which veteran’s file they need to put the paperwork in.

7)  Keep after the benefit if it’s denied.  Many solid claims for secondary service connection are denied despite the veteran’s best efforts.  If this happens veterans shouldn’t give up!  They should keep after the claims that should be secondarily service connected and if necessary, enlist the help of an accredited VA advocate.

Questions?  Feel free to contact Catherine Cornell at the Veterans Practice, Ltd.

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