By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON — A bill passed by the House of Representatives with strong bipartisan support will modernize the veterans’ appeals process, supporters maintained.

            The bill, HR 2288, would create three “lanes” for veterans’ appeals to allow for more efficient processing rather than the single current lane. Those lanes would be the “new evidence lane,” the “local higher level review lane” and the “Board lane.”

In addition, the bill, which passed late last month, would give the VA secretary the authority to test the new system prior to full implementation and would allow some veterans already going through the appeals process to opt into the new system. The bill requires VA to provide a plan for how the process will be implemented.

The Senate was also considering appeal modernization legislation.

            “We all know that Congress must act now to reform and improve VA’s outdated appeals process…the current appeals process is cumbersome, to say the least, and confusing for veterans and their families,” explained House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, MD, (R-TN) during the markup of the bill.

Ranking Member Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) added that a “once in a generation opportunity to reform the disability claims process sits right in front of us.”

“I’m happy we are moving the legislation forward,” he said.

Appeals Reform

            The VA sought comprehensive appeals reform last year, but legislation addressing it did not make it out of Congress.

VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, urged the Senate to pass the current appeals reform bill after it was passed by the House last month.

            “We need Congress to authorize the overhaul of our broken and failing claims appeals process…we worked closely with the VSO’s and other stakeholders to draft the proposal to modernize that system and we are waiting for the Senate to act,” he told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs at a hearing on the administration’s FY 2018 proposed budget for VA. 

Shulkin noted in budget material submitted to the committee that, as of April 30, 2017, VA had 470,546 pending appeals. The average processing time for all appeals resolved by VA in FY 2016 was approximately three years.

For those appeals that were decided by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals in FY 2016, on average, veterans waited at least six years from filing their Notice of Disagreement until the decision was issued that year.

“Without significant legislative reform to modernize the appeals process, veteran wait times and the cost to taxpayers will only increase,” according to Shulkin’s written statement. “Comprehensive legislative reform is necessary to replace the current lengthy, complex, confusing VA appeals process with a new process that makes sense for veterans, their advocates, VA, and other stakeholders.”

The VA secretary told lawmakers that he believes that if the Senate passes the bill that “moving forward” it will allow his agency a way to prevent the backlog from increasing. He cautioned, however, that VA currently has “a backlog of way too many claims and appeals,” that has to be resolved.

“That is something we still have to come up with a better answer on,” Shulkin told lawmakers.

Veterans service organizations have also pointed to the challenge of legacy appeals. The American Legion requested that Congress authorize $242 million in FY 2018–2019 and beyond to the VA for resolution of the backlog of appeals currently in the system.

“Although Congress is taking the appropriate actions in addressing the issue of future appeals, through the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, there remains roughly 500,000 legacy claims yet addressed,” the organization emphasized in a statement to the committee.

In addition, the Disabled American Veterans group said in statement submitted to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that, regardless of potential passage of the appeals legislation, that “the Board will continue to require resources commensurate with workload, especially to process legacy appeals remaining at the time of enactment of new appeals reform legislation.”