NEW LAW STREAMLINING VA CLAIM APPEALS EASES SOME PROTECTIONS
Every major veteran service organization except Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) supported legislation, signed into law last week, to reform a woefully clogged process for deciding appeals of veterans’ disability claims.
Even VVA concedes the new “three-lane” option for appealing claims, when implemented via regulation a year or more from now, will produce speedier appeal decisions and begin to reverse what continues to be a steadily rising backlog of appeals, soon to surpass a stunning 500,000.
Every veteran appealing a claim knows something is wrong with a system that, on average, takes three years to get a final decision. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says some veterans are waiting six years or more.
In May 2016, with Congress unable to agree on reforms and the backlog rising, then-VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson created a work group of senior VA officials, veteran organization representatives, Board of Appeals experts and, months later, key legislative staff. It was the backlog that made compromise possible. Veteran groups agreed to ease certain protections to address it.
“The question became: How can we improve the process to make it more efficient and still strike the right balance of preserving those protections for the veteran,” said a House staff member involved in the negotiations. “There was momentum to do something.”
VA officials had complained for years that the big drag on timely appeals was that case records never closed. Veterans could claim new evidence at any time, and VA had a “duty to assist” in compiling that evidence, seeking more files from government agencies or private physicians and hospitals while appeals stalled.
During negotiations, said the House staffer, VA “came out with a very revolutionary olive branch: If we allow the effective date [of the claim] to be preserved, as long as something is submitted within the one year following the decision point, where can we…ease some of the duty-to-assist protections?”
Rick Weidman, VVA’s executive director for policy and government affairs, was part of the work group. Weidman said he’s all but certain VA officials had their proposal drafted weeks before the group was even formed.
The product of that group became the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act, signed Aug. 23. Supporters say it gives veterans options for appeal better suited to individual circumstances. When a claim is denied, or a disability rating award disappoints, they will have three options to appeal.
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