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Medical Record Retention Policies and Their Impact on VA Claims

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Receiving a medical exam at the end of your active service is standard procedure and yet, it is one that often complicates a veteran’s ability to seek benefits in the years and decades to come. After all, Doc checks out the Marine. The Marine appears in good shape. Ergo, the Marine Corps returned you to civilian life in proper condition. Then, years and often decades later, the true scars of what military service inflicted on the mind and body begin to take shape. When a veteran pursues a VA claim at that time, the medical exam at the end of your active services comes back to haunt you. “Not service connected” are the three words a veteran dreads to hear when they know deep within their soul where the injuries originated. Little did the veteran know that state medical record retention laws would play such a heavy role in their denied claim. If you are a veteran who has a few minutes of your time, I’d like to discuss what you can start doing right now to improve the odds of success and it starts with understanding medical record retention policies.

Some Scars and Injuries Are Not Visible

As for myself, I am a United States Marine veteran who exited Iraq in 2003. That was the end of my active service and in fact, Iraq was the very last thing I did in the Marines as my contract was up when I returned. I received your standard medical exam and was sent on my way. Despite remaining in fit and fighting shape during my early 20’s, I began to experience frequent and intense back pain. Now, I didn’t really think much of it at the time and neither did the civilian doctors who treated me. “Lower back pain is extremely common” is what I was told.

I always had good jobs and good medical insurance after the military and as such, getting help was not a problem. As my 20’s gave way to my 30’s, the back pain progressed and yet, I still insisted it was fine. At the age of 37, things began to change for the worse. The pain was more frequent, intense, and eventually, constant.

I sought treatment from chiropractors, acupuncture, acoustic wave therapy and just about every other option under the sun. Finally, the medical doctors stopped treating it as routine and referred me to the specialist I never knew I needed. That’s when I found out that I had developed arthritis in my lower spine, well below the age of 40. Sadly, I discovered that arthritis is not curable and only treatable. The only option was to kill the nerve endings for temporary relief and settle in that this is my future.

A Blast From the Past Has Returned to Haunt Me

It was then that I could recall the years of 10 to 20 mile humps that were routine for the infantry. Years of carrying hundreds of pounds on my back and the general abuse that a grunt joyfully endures. I could then remember a less than graceful exit from a 5-ton during a firefight in Iraq where I injured my back and it hurt for days afterwards. Yet, in the middle of a firefight is no time to see the Doc for back pain and the tempo of operations didn’t allow for it afterwards.

There is no doubt in my mind, body, or soul that my back problems are the result of years of abuse in my late teens and early 20’s courtesy of the United States Marine Corps. That’s when I settled on the idea of pursuing a VA claim some 17 years after I returned from Iraq. As I began to collect my medical records from nearly 2 decades of medical treatment, I was shocked to find out that many of those records from my early 20’s were nowhere to be found.

You see, I figured the VA could say my back is not service connected now that I am 40 and a little out of shape. Thus, I was certain the records of the pain when I was young and fit would help. Yet, they were nowhere to be found. That’s when I realized that medical record retention policies could unknowingly be my undoing.

Medical Record Retention Laws Vary by State

Now, I could take the time to post the medical record retention laws by state. However, I’m confident in your ability to Google after you read this article. What I can tell you explicitly is that you have 7 to 10 years before the clock runs out on you. In some cases less and in a few other cases a little more. That 7 to 10 years from treatment is the norm and that norm has been the undoing of many VA claims.

At one clinic, I was fortunate to get a hold of a very compassionate and understanding medical records clerk. It was well past the 10 years, but she knew that they did archive some medical records in another location. She didn’t have to, but she did some investigating and came up with a couple of my long lost records. Unfortunately, most were lost to time.

Little did I know that arthritis would be the partner that I will spend the rest of my life with and medical record retention laws could be the reason I do it so without the help of the VA. As of the time of this writing, I have not gotten my answer back from the VA just yet. So perhaps there is hope, but I’m not too optimistic. There were a couple of things I could have done to improve my odds and while it is too late for me, it may not be too late for you.

Start Collecting Your Medical Records Right Now

If you are 7 to 10 years separated from service, I pray that you’ll get on the phone and request your records. Don’t hesitate, just do it. In some cases you’ll pay a small fee, but it is worth it. I had no idea that my back was a ticking time bomb. Those of us who served know all too well that the scars of our service are not always visible. Yet, they will emerge when we least suspect it and when we are the least prepared for it.

Again, in some states you have even less time to grab those records. I realize that you may be young and healthy, but time catches us all. As I sit here with pain in my back, the past 20 years seem to be a blur. This is me at 40 and I’m sure by 50 or 60, the pain doesn’t get better. It may be too late for me, but it is not too late for you. You may think you are single without a care in the world, but give it a little time and you’ll start to worry whether you’ll be able to play games with your kids.

When I received some treatment and some relief for my back, it was my son asking me if I could give piggyback rides now that got me. Yes son, I can. Though I knew not for long. Who knows how many piggyback rides he missed while my back was aggravated and because he keeps growing, those are joyful moments of a father that I’ll never get back. Such is life and I don’t regret my service to my country, but I do regret not grabbing the records when I was younger. I don’t know how many other ways to say it. Veterans of all ages, start collecting your medical records now.

Valor 4 Vet You Will Not Regret

My final regret is not finding Valor 4 Vet sooner. Yes, I know I write for them. However, my VA claim was packaged, sealed and delivered long before I did. As I write for them and I see what they can offer, I have no doubt that my claim would have been stronger with their guidance. Should I get denied, I’m sure I’ll barter some advocacy for extra writing. The VA is not something that can easily be navigated on your own. Nor is the medical community.

We all need a little help from time to time and I’m thrilled to see what Valor 4 Vet offers my fellow warriors. We all know the VA for the blessing/burden that it can be. It has been the lifeline to so many veterans and to others it has been the bureaucratic cause of death. Request your records today and enlist a little help if you are going to take on the VA.

As for myself, I have many regrets in life, but little did I know that not requesting my medical records would be among them. It seems so simple and the assumption that they will always be there is so prevalent. Yet, the clock is ticking and I write this with all the urgency on your behalf so that the clock does not run out on you as it did me.

Valor 4 Vet does not represent veterans for legal claims, does not provide legal advice, and does not provide medical advice.

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