Congress takes another shot at fixing outdated, lengthy veterans appeals process

The Veterans Affairs Department said it would need “billions of dollars in additional appropriations” to work through the 470,000 appeals that are now pending in the Veterans Benefits Administration and Board of Veterans Appeals as of April 1.

“What we need is either an extraordinary amount of resources or we need to change the law,” David McLenachen, director of VBA’s Appeals Management Office, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee May 2. “That’s why we’re here, because it does not make sense to throw more money at a process that’s broken.”

Previous bills to improve the veterans appeals process have failed in Congress, but members of both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees are taking another stab at the issue. Senate VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), as well as House VA Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee Chairman Mike Bost (R-Ill.) and Ranking Member Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) introduced new legislation Tuesday.

The VA Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 includes the same provisions that VA negotiated with veterans service organizations and other stakeholders during a series of meetings on the topic last year, including three different paths that veterans could take to pursue their appeal. One of those paths gives veterans the option to waive their right to a hearing or the ability to submit new evidence to get a faster appeal decision.

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But unlike previous attempts, this bill would allow some veterans waiting for years on a decision to begin using the expedited path in the new veterans appeals process.

“Unfortunately, we must limit the number of veterans who can opt in, because VA is concerned that if too many veterans opt in, the new system will be overwhelmed and unable to operate successfully,” Bost said.

VA would have to develop a detailed implementation strategy before beginning work on the new appeals system, which must include plans for updating the department’s IT systems and training. The Government Accountability Office would review the plan and report its feedback to Congress.

The bill also requires the VA Secretary to keep in contact with the veterans service organizations throughout the implementation process and ensure them and Congress that the department has the funding and resources in place before fully administering the new system nationwide.

Reporter Nicole Ogrysko discusses this story on Federal Drive with Tom Temin

VA Secretary David Shulkin has said fixing the appeals process is one of his top priorities, and he and other department leadership say they want to have a solution in place this year.

The department said it supports the main features of Bost’s legislation but disagrees with a few aspects of it. And several Veterans Service Organizations, including the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars, all support the bill yet have some concerns.

“For years we’ve been stuck in the same place: Afraid to act out of fear we will make the wrong decision,” said Ryan Gallucci, director of the national legislative service for the VFW. “But if we stay put, the situation will never improve.”

The bill’s provisions on funding and resources has both VA and VSOs concerned, but for different resources. The appeals improvement bill gives VA 18 months to implement the provisions of the law and set up the new appeals system.

The department said it’s unsure it could certify it has the funding it needs far in advance.

“[It’s] going to be dependent upon the appropriations cycles in future years and potentially puts the secretary in a difficult position of certifying now as to what that readiness is going to be in future years, which is going to be dependent upon the budget cycle,” said David Spickler, executive in charge and acting chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

Yet some VSOs want to be reassured that the department has the resources it needs to start the project before it begins that work.

“Every time VA faces a crisis, VA reallocates its resources to focus solely on the crisis, neglecting other work. This only breeds further crises,” Gallucci said. “VA must have the resources to manage its workload, otherwise we’ll find ourselves back here discussing another backlog.”

The 470,000 pending appeals is a 20 percent increase over the 375,000 claims in VA’s backlog in 2015, House VA Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said. It can take veterans anywhere between three to five years to receive a decision on their appeal from VA.

For years, Congress and the department focused on the hundreds of thousands of disability claims in VA’s backlog. The department reduced the disability claims background from 611,000 in 2013 to less than 100,000 in 2015. Focusing resources on disability appeals allowed VA’s work on other claims to pile up over time.

“After the VA and this committee worked very hard to reduce that backlog, it was like squeezing the balloon and the air pops up somewhere else,” said Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), a former member of the VA committee who had drafted a version of veteran appeals legislation last year.

The committee last year coupled her bill with legislation on VA employee accountability procedures. VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016 cleared the House but never made it to the Senate floor for a vote.

Roe said he plans to work closely with Isakson to move the bill quickly through the Senate and to the President’s desk by the end of the year.

Roe and other members seemed optimistic that the committee could negotiate minor changes to the bill and pass it quickly in the House.

“We either continue the current system and live with these extraordinarily long waits, that’s one option,” he said. “As was pointed out by the VA, we can appropriate a lot more money and expand what we’re doing now and hope that clears the system up. Or we could try a new system.”