Veteran with languished claim receives timely decision through Rapid Appeals Modernization Program
Mike Brenaman was a healthy 21-year-old soldier stationed in northern Germany when the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster occurred April 26, 1986. He had little idea, though, that in the following days, he’d be exposed to a cloud of radioactive dust and debris that traveled roughly 1,000 miles from Pripyat, Ukraine, and would cause serious health issues in the decades to come.
He also couldn’t foresee the challenges he would face in getting a service-connected VA disability rating for his stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
After a VA oncologist determined his illness was a direct result of his radioactive exposure, the DAV life member and chapter service officer of Chapter 47 in Oak Harbor, Wash., submitted a disability claim for his illness in June 2015. The VA denied the claim on the grounds that no prior precedent had been set for considering his cancer service-connected.
“The VA said it was going to wait until it got an answer, so my claim was essentially deferred even though I had two letters from my oncologist,” Brenaman explained.
Wanting to see a Veterans Law Judge and with his appeal sitting idle for nearly 1,000 days, he turned to a fellow DAV service officer for help.
“He wanted to get to a hearing and asked me what the fastest way possible would be to do that,” said National Service Officer Jacob Holland, assistant supervisor of DAV’s Seattle office. “I said, ‘Let’s get you into RAMP and see if they’ll change their decision.”
RAMP, the VA’s Rapid Appeals Modernization Program, was initiated in November 2017. The program is designed to streamline the appeals process by allowing eligible veterans to choose one of two options for having their claims reconsidered: seek higher-level review or file a supplemental claim.
Despite his reluctance to participate in a relatively new VA program, Brenaman, 54, opted into RAMP in June 2018 and sought a higher-level review since he already had documentation stating his lymphoma was service-connected.
“I wasn’t excited about it because I wasn’t sure it’d be effective,” he said.
Holland felt otherwise.
“I told him, ‘With RAMP, we’re essentially knocking off two birds with one stone,’” explained Holland, himself a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan. “‘One, we’re getting you a decision faster. And two, if you do have to go to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, this will be the fastest way possible.’”
In late August 2018—a mere 66 days after opting into RAMP—Brenaman received a favorable VA decision, which increased the 80 percent disability rating he had from other conditions to 100 percent total disability.
It was welcome news he held closely until he attended annual chapter and department service officer training at the Department of Washington Fall Conference, where he heard other members voice skepticism of RAMP.
“Mr. Brenaman stood up and said, ‘I can assure you this is a program that does work,’” Holland recalled. “‘And if it wasn’t for Mr. Holland, who explained this to me, I would not have gotten my disability granted.’”
“He was wanting a hearing, but at the end of the day, he didn’t need one, because the evidence supported his claim,” said Holland. “People need to trust RAMP, and Mr. Brenaman is a perfect example of why it works.”
Brenaman’s prognosis is improving as well. After 16 rounds of initial treatment, his cancer has been downgraded to stage 2 as he partakes in immunotherapy for the foreseeable future. He attributes his new disability rating for relieving an incredible amount of stress in his life and maintains that the worst part of the appeals process is waiting for an answer from the VA.
“It’s crazy to wait that amount of time to try to see a judge when you can move on in the right direction with the RAMP program and get an answer in a short amount of time,” he said. “I think it’s a fantastic program, and I’m going to talk to all my clients about it when they’re eligible for it.”
As for Holland, it all comes down to one simple mantra: veterans helping veterans.
“It’s something I hold close to my heart and something I really love to do.”