WASHINGTON — VA needs to address all of the required elements of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 in its implementation plan for its new disability appeals system, a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report recommended.
The recommendation stemmed from a review of the extent to which VA’s appeals plan addresses the required elements in the act.
“VA is undertaking a complex endeavor that has the potential to affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of veterans with service-connected disabilities. Such an endeavor demands a commensurate level of planning to be successful,” the report stated.
The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 was signed into law last year and is designed to give veterans more options for having their claims appeals reviewed and to speed up the handling of their claims. The law required VA to provide a plan, which was submitted this past November, for how the new system will be implemented.
GAO called the plan “a positive step forward” in its report but stated that the plan “partially addresses or does not address five of the required elements called for by the Act, such as delineating the total resources required by VBA and the Board to implement and administer the new appeals process and address legacy appeals.”
These concerns were outlined earlier this year in congressional testimony, where GAO officials noted that, while VA’s implementation plan addresses 17 of 22 required elements, it partially dealt with four of them and did not address one of the required parts of the plan.
The new report stated that the plan “is not fully responsive to our past recommendations and does not reflect a number of sound planning practices.”
“One such key practice is articulating a desired ‘end state’—a vision for what successful implementation would look like for the new appeals process as well as the wind-down of the legacy process, such as accurate and timely processing of appeals while ensuring veteran satisfaction,” the GAO authors explained.
Without establishing “a complete and balanced set of goals and related performance measures to achieve this end state, and monitoring and assessing progress along the way, VA risks falling short of its overarching objective to improve timeliness of appeals decisions for veterans overall,” the report stated.
The GAO audit, conducted from October 2017 to March 2018, follows a hearing earlier this year in which VA officials told lawmakers that VA is on track to fully implement the new law by the February 2019 deadline.
At that hearing, VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman told lawmakers that “the new system is easier to understand” and that “veterans will be able to tailor reviews to their needs and it will provide both faster decisions and greater transparency.”
During that hearing, U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro had outlined GAO’s concerns, telling lawmakers that, while the oversight found “VA was using certain sound planning practices” GAO “found also there were a number of other areas that could benefit from better planning practices.”
Dodaro also told lawmakers that VA’s implementation plan for the new system was lacking. “Without complete information on all 22 of the required elements, Congress does not have the information it needs to fully conduct oversight of VA’s appeals plan and the agency’s efforts to implement and administer the new process while addressing legacy appeals,” he said.
At the hearing, Dodaro also pointed out that VA’s pilot program to test the system, known as Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP), “does not fully test” all five options for appealing to the board that will be available to veterans after full implementation.
That issues continues to be a concern, the recent report stated, noting that VA’s plan was placing “a lot of weight” on a pilot program but that “unless VA addresses key risks associated with fully implementing appeals reform—by either testing or conducting sensitivity analyses for all five appeals options” that “VA runs the risk of fully implementing the process without knowing if it is improving the process for veterans.”
In its report, GAO stated that VA agreed with its report recommendations and that the agency said that both VBA and the board will use existing resources to implement the new appeals process.
“VA also stated it plans to take additional steps to determine resource requirements for addressing workloads under both the legacy and new appeals process,” the report explained.
VA said it will continue to rely on RAMP to project resource requirements but “acknowledged the need to augment its analysis of RAMP data by adopting additional strategies to project resource requirements,” the document stated.
“VA did not describe these strategies but stated that it will share them with Congress and GAO in the near future,” the GAO explained.