WASHINGTON–VA is “on track” to implement a law designed to give veterans more options to have their claims appeals reviewed, as well as speed up the process, agency officials assured lawmakers last month.

“Veterans can expect a modernized appeals process on time in February 2019,” said VA Acting Deputy Secretary James Byrne.

As part of that process, Byrne told lawmakers that the VA expects to meet the IT milestones for the system.

“Appeals modernization implementation is not facing the IT challenges we have seen with the Forever GI bill implementation,” Byrne said, referring to another piece of legislation.

Byrne made his comments at a hearing held by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 last month. Questions were raised about whether the appeals legislation would be ready for implementation in February.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), said, if VA needs another month, he would “have no problem with that.”

“While we are all excited for appeals reform to roll out, it is also important for VA to understand that this committee does not wish for VA to push out the new appeals system in February if it’s not truly ready,” Roe emphasized.

Changing Leadership

The hearing was one of a handful held in December by the committee before a change from Republican to Democrat leadership.

It was the third hearing this year held by the committee on the new law, which VA considers the most significant statutory change affecting its appeals process in decades.

According to the Government Accountability Office, veterans who appealed VA decisions on their claims have traditionally waited an average of three years, while a subset of appeals resolved by the Board of Veterans Appeals, which provides a higher level of review, took an average of seven years to resolve. The new system is meant to shorten that time.

In describing the progress in implementing the new law, Byrne told lawmakers that the efforts have not interfered with the agency’s ability to process legacy appeals.

The Board of Veterans’ Appeals decided 85,288 appeals in fiscal year 2018, a historic high for any fiscal year, according to the agency. The board’s annual production goal for FY 2019 is set at 90,050 decisions, according to the agency.

“We continue making historic progress on legacy appeals,” Byrne told lawmakers.

Delay implementation?

Meanwhile Elizabeth Curda, GAO director of the Education, Workforce and Income Security Team, said that VA is still missing key information in its appeals modernization plan and that the agency needs to certify that it has the resources needed to successfully implement appeals reform.

Among GAO’s recommendations is that VA’s plan should more fully address risks in implementing a new appeals process by testing all options prior to full implementation.

“For example, although VA has used lessons learned from tests to update the implementation process, it has not fully tested all aspects, nor has it developed mitigation strategies for all identified risks, such as veterans appealing to the board at higher rates than expected,” Curda’s written statement explained.

VA should fully implement GAO’s recommendations to improve the process, she told lawmakers, but suggested that doing so before February 2019 might be “challenging.”

Curda advised that delaying full implementation and, instead, using a phased-in approach might be better to “allow time for more testing and plan improvements.”

“Significant risks exist with launching the new process in February,” she cautioned.

When asked by Roe whether a phased approach of implementation might be better, per the GAO suggestion, Byrne responded that his understanding is that the VA is “ready to go.”

“We will alert this body if we are able to implement earlier or later,” he told lawmakers.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) questioned what GAO thought the consequences could be if VA does not completely address the oversight group’s recommendations before implementing the new process.

Curda posited that resources could be an issue. “It could have implications for the board to be able to process legacy claims and now take care of the folks who signed up for something new,” she pointed out.

Although Byrne said GAO’s concerns “are fair,” he noted that the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program, a pilot program to test parts of the appeals modernization system that was authorized by law, is giving the VA a good idea of how the modernized process will work.

“The big picture is that we are offering the veterans choice and control over the appeals process that is unprecedented, making it easy and user friendly,” he said.

Byrne said that he and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie have a lot of confidence that implementation will occur on time, with the only caveat being if the regulations are delayed. According to Byrne’s written testimony, VA is working collaboratively with the Office of Management and Budget to finalize the regulations and prepare them for publication in the Federal Register.

“The regulations, we don’t completely control that process. [They are] being evaluated right now,” he said.