If you are denied veterans disability compensation, you can ask to have a Decision Review Officer (DRO) hearing. It's an optional review of a previously decided claim; it is not a required part of the appeals process. Instead, you can skip this step and appeal directly to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) if you wish.
The first chance a veteran has to request a DRO hearing is when the veteran files a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) stating why the veteran disagrees with the VA's decision (typically, a denial of disability benefits). If you don't ask for the hearing when you file your NOD, the VA will later ask you if you would like the hearing.
You can request a DRO Hearing at any time while your case remains at your regional VA office.
A benefit to a DRO hearing is that it will happen a lot faster than a Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) hearing. Unlike a request for an appeal before the BVA, you do not have to wait for the VA to issue a Statement of the Case before requesting it. But, unless you have all your medical evidence ready to support your claim, it may not help you case to have a DRO hearing.
Besides being able to get a hearing faster, you have a good chance of getting the VA's decision reversed by a DRO. The DRO is a very experienced VA employee who is well acquainted with veterans disability law.
Decision Review Officer hearings are usually located at the VA Regional Office that issued the decision on the claim. If the office is a long distance away, you may be able to have a video-conferenced hearing at an office that is closer to you. This is especially likely if you cannot afford to travel to the original office or are disabled and need to have the hearing in an accessible building.
A DRO hearing is very informal. It will not be anything like a trail that you have seen on TV. In fact, it won't even be in a courtroom. It will be usually held in a large hearing room at the VA Regional Office.
There is no set format for the hearing, and no time limit. The DRO will make an informal opening statement. You will be able to present medical evidence, give testimony, and make arguments about your case. The advantage is you will be speaking directly to the person who will be making a decision on your claim.
The DRO will review the evidence in your file as well as any new evidence you bring. The DRO will also ask you some questions. At the conclusion of the hearing, the DRO will make a brief closing statement.
A VA hearing room is not an intimidating environment. The only people in the room will be you; your lawyer, if you have one; witnesses, if you bring any; and the Decision Review Officer. There will be microphones at the table, but only for purposes of tape recording, not to amplify your voice. Be aware that the quality of VA tape recordings is very poor; it is a good idea to bring your own recorder. Otherwise, you will probably not be able to have a complete transcript of the hearing, which you may need for later levels of appeal.
The DRO is obligated to tell you about evidence you haven't submitted that might help your claim. If the DRO advises you of additional evidence that could help your claim, ask the DRO to hold off on deciding your claim until you submit it.
When you have a DRO hearing, there is no risk that favorable parts of the decision on your claim can be reversed. A Decision Review Officer only has authority to grant disability claims that were denied, and cannot overrule any prior grants of benefits.
The VA will not reimburse any of your expenses related to the hearing, such as travel expenses.
If the DRO does not grant your claim, you will have a chance to appeal to the BVA once you receive a Statement of the Case (a written summary of how your claim was decided) from the VA.
If you disagree with only part of the decision, in some cases, you can request a second DRO hearing. For example, if the DRO grants you service connection for a disability but you think your benefits should have an earlier effective date, or, you think the rating should be higher, you can request another hearing with another Decision Review Officer. You may want to consult with a disability lawyer to decide what to do in this case.