Overseers fear VA’s new appeals modernization will go the way of past failed projects

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The Veterans Affairs Department has about a year left to get its new, faster appeals process off the ground and ready for prime time.

Since Congress passed and the president signed the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act into law last summer, VA is piloting and has seen some success with the Rapid Appeals Modernization Plan (RAMP).

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But members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee — many of whom worked with veterans service organizations for years to perfect the new appeals modernization law — say they fear VA’s latest modernization project will go the way of many of the department’s previous failed efforts.

The Government Accountability Office said it’s also concerned, mainly because VA’s implementation plan for RAMP has some holes. VA’s appeals process has been on GAO’s High-Risk List since 2003.

According to deadline set under law, VA is supposed to implement the new appeals process by Feb. 19, 2019.

“Right now, I don’t think they’re prepared to have all of the information they’re going to need in order to certify that they’re ready to move forward, ” GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told the House VA Committee at a hearing earlier this week. “Based on the plan so far, I’m not confident that they’ll be ready by February 2019 unless they deal with these gaps and have a fully informed plan.”

Most notably, the department doesn’t have a clear schedule for implementing the IT systems it needs to support the new appeals process. VA has an IT plan that details the next six months, but Dodaro said it doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s not as robust as it needs to be,” Tom Bowman, VA’s deputy secretary, acknowledged. “It is going to become more robust. We do believe that we have brought people aboard between our IT capability and the resources that we believe we have available to address that. But it’s not where it needs to be, and I’m not going to tell you any differently.”

Under VA’s current pilot, veterans can choose to withdraw their existing appeal and transfer to the new RAMP system. The process gives veterans two different paths to pursue their appeals within the Veterans Benefits Administration. One “lane” gives veterans the option to waive their right to a hearing or the ability to submit new evidence to get a faster decision.

Veterans can also continue to appeal to the Board of Veterans Appeals.

But VA’s current RAMP implementation plan doesn’t address how the board will fit in to the new process, and it doesn’t have set timeliness targets.

“We have not defined the end state,” said Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas). “So without that, we’ll never really know how we’re doing. People could say, ‘We’ve hired a bunch of people. We’re working really hard. We processed this many more claims.’ But if we don’t have a defined end state … I don’t know what the goal is so [we] don’t know how to measure against that.”

VA also hasn’t finished its regulations for the new RAMP process. The department said it hopes to have them finished by the third quarter of this year, but VA hasn’t yet sent those regulations to the Office of Management and Budget for approval.

With a current backlog of about 470,000 pending appeals, VBA is also attempting to speed up the process for existing cases. VBA last year reorganized some of its functions under one Appeals Management Office.

Bowman said it’s because of that change that VBA has processed 24 percent more appeals and cut down the backlog by 10 percent since last January.

The Board of Veterans Appeals, meanwhile, is on track to deliver 81,000 decisions in fiscal 2018, a 34 percent increase over the previous year’s total.

To date, VA has sent veterans 15,000 invitations to try out the new RAMP process. About 3 percent of those who have been contacted opted into the program.

But members of Congress and GAO said they were concerned that VA’s sample size for the pilot is too small.

“If you can’t gather and analyze the data, we’re just going to be whistling in the wind,” committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said. “When we start this RAMP up full, essentially a year from now, this is a massive change in how things are done at the VA. With so few people … how do we encourage more veterans to switch to a system they know to one right now that’s new and untried?”

VA said it would continue to work with veterans service organizations and Congress to help encourage their members and constituents to consider trying the department’s new system.

So far, VBA has been processing those appeals within 37 days, and 61 percent of veterans have won their appeals — significantly higher than the 25 percent of veterans who typically earn a positive decision.

Once VA fully implements RAMP, Bowman said veterans with high-level claims will have a decision in 125 days and cases that go to the Board of Veterans Appeals will be finished within about a year.

“We want to get this exactly right,” Bowman said. “It’s a period in time that we believe is seminal. We believe we’ve turned a corner after the hard work of two years that produced this legislation.”