A DRO is a Decision Review Officer who works for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). DROs review some appeals of veterans' disability benefits. (Learn how to appeal a veterans disability claim.) Getting a DRO review is much faster than an appeal to the Bureau of Veterans Affairs (BVA). (Here are other reasons to choose a DRO review.)
How Do You Select a DRO Review?
After a veteran has filed a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) with the regional VA office/agency to appeal a denial or partial denial of a veteran's claim for veterans disability benefits, the VA will then notify the veteran in writing that he or she has a right to have the decision reviewed a choice as to how the case will be reviewed. The two options available are review by a hearing officer (the default choice), or a "de novo" review by a DRO. (De novo reviews are explained below.)
The selection of a DRO can also be made when filing the Notice of Disagreement, but if it isn't, the selection must be made within 60 days of when the VA sent the notice that the veteran has a right to a review. A veteran appellant may only have one de novo review of his claim, and his claim will be reviewed only has not been finalized, either by failure to appeal by the deadlines or by a completed appeal.
What Is the Difference Between a Hearing Officer and a DRO?
A hearing officer will review the previous decision made by the regional VA office, whereas a DRO will look at the veteran's file “de novo,” meaning that the DRO will review the file as if it was being reviewed for the first time -- without considering or giving deference to the previous decision. Also, unlike a hearing officer, a DRO is a senior technical expert and has jurisdiction (the authority to hear and decide) of any appeal.
If a dispute over the veteran's disability rating is one of the issues addressed in the NOD, and is raised by the veteran during the hearing or conference, the DRO will have jurisdiction over rating issues as well (meaning the DRO can make a decision changing a veteran's disability rating).
How Does the DRO Process Work?
The DRO process includes a de novo review, and sometimes an informal conference, before the DRO issues a decision.
Formal/De Novo Review
After the veteran has requested a DRO hearing, the DRO will conduct a “de novo” review of the veteran's file. The DRO works in partnership with the veteran or his or her representative to resolve all issues raised in the NOD. The DRO may request more information or evidence from the veteran necessary to resolve the case, or may conduct an informal conference with the veteran to obtain additional evidence. Based on the de novo review or the introduction of new evidence, the DRO then either decides to overturn or uphold the original decision.
Alternatively, the DRO can choose to continue to work with the veteran and his or her representative to resolve the veteran's disagreement. The DRO may also begin to prepare the appeal for Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) review by sending the veteran a Statement of the Case (explaining the facts, decision, and pertinent laws).
A DRO may also decide to hold an informal conference as part of the appellate review process. The purpose of an informal conference is to enable all the parties to understand the issues requiring review and to make sure the issues are focused and clarified.
A veteran can request an informal hearing in person, by telephone, by fax, e-mail or in writing. The DRO should document the request with Form 119. An informal conference may be held in person at the Regional Office, by telephone, or by video conference. The conference is informal in nature, and the rules of evidence do not apply.
The veteran or his representative may introduce new evidence into the record and make arguments regarding facts or law at the conference. At the end of the informal conference, the DRO will file an Informal Conference Report, which documents and summarizes the conference, describes the issues in detail, specifies any additional required evidence, and details the course of action the parties plan to take. This Report will be placed in the veteran's claims file.
Making a Decision
When the time comes for the DRO to issue a decision, the DRO issues either a new rating decision awarding new benefits, a Statement of the Case (SOC), or a Supplemental Statement of the Case, depending on the decision:
If the new decision awards full benefits to the veteran, the DRO issues a new rating decision and files a statement saying that full benefits have been awarded and the issue is considered resolved. All of the reasons for the new rating level must be comprehensively detailed.
If the new decision awards partial benefits to the veteran, the DRO must issue a new rating decision granting the additional benefits, a new SOC, and an Appeal Response form. The DRO must try to contact the veteran and speak to him personally to explain his decision and any next steps.
If the new decision upholds the previous decision, the DRO must issue a SOC, which will include a summary of the evidence, discussion of pertinent laws and how they apply to the case, and the reasons for the decision. If the decision upholds the original decision, the DRO will send a Statement of the Case and a VA Form 9, which the veteran may use to file a formal substantive appeal. A DRO's decision is final and binding and may only be appealed to the BVA.
If the veteran decides, as a result of his interaction with the DRO, to withdraw his claim, he must give the DRO verbal notice, and then give notice in writing within ten days of his verbal notice to the DRO. If he fails to do so, the DRO will issue a SOC.
Clear and Unmistakable Errors
After a de novo review, a DRO may not make a decision about a disability rating that is less advantageous to the veteran (meaning he may not review the case and assign a lower disability rating and lower level of benefits to the veteran). The DRO's decision must either raise or maintain the disability rating and benefits level, except in cases where there is clear and unmistakable error (CUE) in the previous decision.
If CUE is cited as a reason for a less advantageous decision, the local Veterans Service Center Manager (VCSM) must sign off on this decision. If the VSCM does not agree with the DRO's decision in cases where CUE is cited, the DRO issues a statement affirming his decision, and the VCSM issues a statement disagreeing with the decision, and then both file their statements in the veteran's claims file.
Additionally, if the DRO finds a clear and unmistakable error in a disability rating issue, the DRO or a Regional VCSM must annotate the rating decision with a Certificate of Error.
What Are DRO's NOT Allowed to Do?
A DRO cannot make a decision on an issue or case if he or she was the decision maker in the original decision.
The DRO has no jurisdiction (authority) over insurance issues, loan guaranty issues, Committee on Waivers and Compromises issues, and VA denials of benefits regarding clothing allowances, automobile and adaptive equipment, and specially adapted housing.
A DRO is also prohibited from recommending a change to a decision by the Board of Veterans Appeals in an individual claim unless there is new and material evidence.
A DRO may not bargain with the veteran by requesting or requiring them to drop one or more of his claims in exchange for any benefit, such as a higher disability rating on a separate claim. A DRO may certainly point out lack of merit in a certain claim, but may not use other claims as bargaining chips.