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March 28, 2024

How Long Does a Higher Level Review Take?

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In 2024, VA Higher Level Reviews are taking 6-8 months from start to finish.

The VA’s published “goal” is to complete a HLR in 4-5 months, but that’s not reality right now.

You can expect to wait longer, especially since HLRs are only being processed by three VBA regional offices with limited senior level reviewers.

How Long Does a Higher Level Review Take?

The current timeframe for VA Higher Level Review decisions is approximately 6-8 months from beginning to end.

Although the VA has set a target of 4-5 months for the HLR process, this goal does not reflect current reality.

Keep in mind that your HLR could be faster or slower depending on the unique circumstances of your case.

Why Are Higher Level Reviews Taking Longer?

There are two main reasons why VA Higher Level Reviews are taking so long right now:

  • #1. Caseload: There are nearly 1M pending claims and 350K backlogged claims. This is close to a 10-year high workload for VA claims adjudicators. Some of these claims will require a Higher Level Review. Click here to view the most current VA claims data.
  • #2. Exclusivity: Only three VBA regional offices process Higher Level Reviews. That means there are a limited number of locations and higher level reviewers who can review your case and make a decision. The three locations that manage VA HLRs are Saint Petersburg, FL, Seattle, WA, and St. Paul, MN RACC (this is a restricted access claims center) for VA employees and veterans with restricted files.

When Can I Request a Higher Level Review?

You can request a Higher Level Review on your claim within 1-year from the date of your VA Decision Letter.

You can also request a Higher Level Review of a Supplemental Claim decision that you disagree with.

Should I Request an Informal Conference?

Personally, I don’t recommend the informal conference option, although it’s 100% your choice to decide if you want one or not.

If you request an informal conference, your Higher Level Review can take 2-3 months longer to decide.

If you had strong evidence with your initial claim submission, you might want to consider a de novo review, which means the senior level claims adjudicator will review the prior submitted evidence only.

If you want to explain your legal or administrative arguments, you might want to submit a written statement explaining the errors in the previous decision along with your HLR application.

The VA HLR Timeline Explained

The VA Higher Level Review (HLR) is a process that allows veterans to contest the decision made on their disability claim by requesting that a senior reviewer take a second look.

This review is focused on identifying any errors in the initial decision based on the evidence that was already on file at the time of the original decision.

Here’s an overview of the HLR timeline and what you can expect during the process:

Step #1: Filing Your VA Higher Level Review

Submission: You must file your request for an HLR within one year of the date on your decision letter. This can be done using VA Form 20-0996, either online, by mail, or in person at a VA office.

No New Evidence: It’s important to note that you cannot submit new evidence with an HLR. The review is solely based on the evidence that was already present in your file at the time of the initial decision.

Written Statement: I recommend preparing a written statement with your HLR package and explaining the errors in the prior rating decision. Be specific and stick to the facts.

Step #2: Informal Conference (Optional)

Option for a Call: During the HLR process, you have the option to request an informal conference. This is a phone call where you or your representative can speak directly with the senior reviewer about specific issues or points of contention in the original decision.

Scheduling: If you opt for an informal conference, the VA will contact you to schedule the call. This usually happens relatively early in the HLR process.

Step #3: The Higher Level Review

Review Begins: A senior claims adjudicator, who has not previously been involved in your claim, will conduct the review. They will examine the entirety of your case file, focusing on identifying any errors of law or fact in the initial decision.

Duration: The timeline for completing an HLR can vary significantly depending on the complexity of the review and the VA’s current workload. While the VA says it wants to decide HLRs in 4-5 months, it’s actually taking 6-8 months or more on average.

Step #4: The Decision

Notification: Once the review is complete, the VA will send you a decision letter detailing the outcome. If the senior reviewer finds that there were errors in the initial decision, your claim may be granted, or you might receive a new decision that replaces the previous one.

Further Actions: If you disagree with the HLR decision, you can choose to file a Supplemental Claim with new and relevant evidence, appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, or seek a review from a different lane within the VA appeals process.

VA Higher Level Review Tips

Here’s 9 tips to help you prepare for your VA Higher Level Review:

1. Understand The Purpose of the Higher Level Review

  • Recognize that the HLR process is designed to identify and correct errors in the initial decision. It’s not for introducing new evidence but rather for a new review of the existing evidence. If you think you need to introduce new evidence, you should consider a Supplemental Claim instead.

2. Carefully Review Your Initial Claim Decision

  • Before requesting an HLR, thoroughly review the decision letter from your initial claim. Identify any areas where you believe the law was incorrectly applied or where there might have been an oversight in reviewing your evidence.

3. Prepare a Written Statement

  • Instead of requesting an informal conference, you should consider preparing a written statement and explaining the errors in the previous rating decision. Be specific about what did or didn’t happen that led you to file the HLR.

4. Be Specific About Disagreements

  • In your written statement, be as specific as possible about which parts of the decision you disagree with and why. This will help the senior reviewer focus on the key areas where errors may have occurred.

5. Organize Your Documentation

  • Even though new evidence cannot be introduced in an HLR, having your documents well-organized can help you reference specific points during an informal conference or in your HLR request.

6. Follow Up Respectfully

7. Plan for The Next Steps

  • Be prepared for any outcome – good, bad, or meh. If the HLR does not result in a favorable decision, understand your next options, which may include filing a Supplemental Claim with new and relevant evidence or appealing to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

8. Ensure Your Contact Information Is Current

  • Make sure the VA has your current mailing address, phone number, and email address to avoid any delays or missed communications regarding your HLR.

9. Document Everything!

  • Keep detailed records of all interactions with the VA, including dates of communications, names of VA employees you speak with, and summaries of discussions or advice given.

What is the Higher Level Review Success Rate?

While there is no published “success rate” for Higher Level Reviews, in my experience, I’d estimate a 50% success rate.

That means one in two veterans will get a successful VA higher level review decision.

Remember, even if your Higher Level Review gets denied, you can always request a Supplemental Claim of the Higher Level Review.

About the Author

Brian Reese
Brian Reese

Brian Reese

Brian Reese is one of the top VA disability benefits experts in the world and bestselling author of You Deserve It: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Veteran Benefits You’ve Earned (Second Edition).

Brian’s frustration with the VA claim process led him to create VA Claims Insider, which provides disabled veterans with tips, strategies, and lessons learned to win their VA disability compensation claim, faster, even if they’ve already filed, been denied, gave up, or don’t know where to start. 

As the founder of VA Claims Insider and CEO of Military Disability Made Easy, he has helped serve more than 10 million military members and veterans since 2013 through free online educational resources.

He is a former active duty Air Force officer with extensive experience leading hundreds of individuals and multi-functional teams in challenging international environments, including a combat tour to Afghanistan in 2011 supporting Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

Brian is a Distinguished Graduate of Management from the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, CO, and he holds an MBA from Oklahoma State University’s Spears School of Business, Stillwater, OK, where he was a National Honor Scholar (Top 1% of Graduate School class).

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