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13.1. How to Communicate with the VA
VA is the second largest agency in the federal government. With over 250,000 employees in hundreds of facilities, just figuring out who in VA you need to contact and how to reach him or her can be difficult. Another problem is that even with recent updates, VA remains a paper-driven and paper-choked organization. As a result, getting the right piece of paper to the right person is not easy.
In fact there is no way for anyone outside VA to guarantee that any communication to VA ever reaches anyone or, if it does, it is acted upon. VETSFIRST can only offer the following suggestions and good practices that have been shown to improve the chances that your communication to VA is successful.
- Never rely on verbal communications (phone call, discussion at the regional office). "If its not on paper, it never happened" is a good rule to follow so put all communications in writing.
- If its worth mailing to VA, its worth mailing certified with a return receipt. The burden is always on a claimant to prove he or she sent required information to VA and "regular mail" cannot be tracked $6 for certified letter is a small investment to protect hundreds or thousands of dollars a month in benefits.
- Never send original documents to VA and keep a copy of exactly what you send in each piece of correspondence. VA is not secure storage: assuming that your documents are not lost in transit, VA employees stamp, write on, punch, fold, and otherwise abuse documents sent to them. VA does not generally need original documents, if VA does request to see an original, arrange a meeting at the regional office and show them the original and then take it home with you.
- If you choose not to send certified letters, at least backup a regular mail letter by faxing a copy to the same location. Most VA fax numbers are available online or by asking someone at the location for the nearest fax machine number. Save a copy of the fax transmission record as proof that you sent the document.
- If you do have a phone call or a meeting with a VA employee and you receive assurances or promises, as soon as possible write a letter stating exactly what was said or promised and send it to VA with a request that they tell you if anything in the letter was wrong at least you will have a chance of "reminding" VA of what it promised you.
The best place to look for the correct address to send a letter to VA is the letter or other document to which you are responding. You should always carefully read all parts of every VA letter sent to you because VA sometimes instructs you to reply to a different address than on the letterhead (and often buries deadlines for responses in the fine print at the end of letters). If no special address is identified, a response to the address on the letterhead is usually acceptable. If all else fails, most VA mailing addresses are available on the VA website.
VA has established some electronic communications tools, including the Inquiry Routing & Information System ("IRIS"), https://iris.custhelp.com/ and the infamous "800 number." While these tools can be helpful on rare occasions, experience has shown that the accuracy and quality of the responses and information returned by these sites can vary widely. VA is notoriously slow to update status information in its various computer systems. Further, the person responding to inquiries is unlikely to be in the same state, much less the same office, as where your claim is being worked. It is also risky to rely on these systems as there is no accountability and no realistic way of confirming the accuracy of the information that is reported.