VA convenes summit with veterans advocates to fix appeals process

Top officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs will meet this week with leaders from several leading veterans’ service organizations, seeking common ground on a legislative proposal that would overhaul the appeals process for veterans’ compensation claims.

In budget testimony last week, VA officials told lawmakers the appeals process set in federal law is “archaic and unresponsive.” But they want the buy-in of veterans’ advocacy groups before they send Congress any formal plan to streamline the process.

“We’re gonna lock everybody in a room, we’re gonna slip food under the door and no one’s coming out until we have something written down that everybody agrees with and that you can pass immediately,” Secretary Bob McDonald told the House Appropriations Committee last week.

VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) has made notable progress in cutting its backlog of initial compensation claims, from a peak of 611,000 in 2013 to 81,000 as of last week, including by hiring more claims staff and requiring them to work mandatory overtime. But the appeals process, handled by the separate Board of Veterans Appeals, has gotten comparatively little attention.

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VA defines a backlogged claim as one that’s kept a veteran waiting more than 120 days for a decision.
But days aren’t a useful yardstick for measuring the wait time involved in the appeals process: The average delay is currently five years, and for many veterans, it’s much, much longer.

“Last year, the board was still adjudicating an appeal that originated 25 years ago and had been decided more than 27 times,” McDonald said. “We need to legislate a simplified process, which can save over $139 million annually beginning in 2022.”

In its 2017 budget proposal, the department called for a 42 percent increase in funding for the appeals board, including 242 more full-time staff to augment its existing 680 employees.

Even though VA did not keep its vow to completely eliminate the claims backlog by the end of 2015 (and officials have recently said the backlog will never drop to zero), the department says the fact that it’s cut the backlog to the extent it has will inevitably put more pressure on the appeals board simply because VBA is handling more cases.

Veterans groups have a slightly different interpretation of that problem, saying pressure on VBA staff to process initial claims decisions as quickly as possible caused a spike in verdicts that were legally or factually wrong, forcing veterans to file appeals in order to gain the benefits they were entitled to — in some ways, simply transferring a chunk of the backlog from VBA to the appeals board.

“An initiative to expedite processing of undecided claims 2 years old and older resulted in rushed decisions, often made without medical examinations of the filing veterans,” Dale Barnett, the American Legion’s national commander, said. “This has contributed to a growing stack of appeals and remanded cases. Quantity cannot overshadow quality. By improving processes to get claims right the first time, VA can keep the appeals backlog from growing.”

In advance of its summit with VSOs this week, VA submitted what McDonald called a “straw man” proposal for adjusting the appeals process as part of its 2017 budget. That placeholder proposal did not delve into many specifics, but officials said the objective is to cut appeals wait time to less than one year by 2021.

VA’s initial ideas for streamlining appeals include ending the ability for veterans to introduce new medical evidence during the appeals process and giving the Board of Veterans Appeals the final say in many cases, reducing the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

Read more stories from the DoD Reporter’s Notebook.

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