New law to streamline appeals process, may also ease some protections on Veterans
As an ever growing backlog nearing 500,000 claims, new legislation signed into law last week seeks to streamline the appeals process, while at the expense of certain protections afforded to veterans. On average, a veteran appealing a claim can be left waiting up to three years on a final decision. It has also been reported by the Department of Veterans Affairs that some veterans experience waits of up to six years. The new law known as the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act, this law aims to remedy the situation.
With Congress originally unable to reach an agreement on reform to address the rising backlog of claims, a work group of senior VA officials, along with representatives from various veterans organizations was created. The work group posed the question of: “How can the process be improved to make it more efficient, while still striking the right balance of preserving protections for veterans?”
What caused the backlog?
For years, one of the main things dragging down the appeals process is that case records were never closed. This allowed veterans to claim new evidence at any time. This created a problem because the VA is bound by a “duty to assist” the veteran with compiling evidence, which results in a stalling of the appeal process. This issue was addressed during the work group negotiations and the solution was to “allow the effective date of the claim to be preserved, as long as something is submitted within one year following the decision.”
This decision resulted in the new legislation known as the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act which was signed into law on August 23, 2017.
How will the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act address this issue?
Basically, this new legislation will create a “three-lane process” for veterans to appeal their claim. The first lane will be “Local Higher-Level of Review” in which veterans may request a claims adjudicator with more experience to review the same evidence that was assessed by the original claims processor. The idea of this lane is to ensure that the claim reached a proper decision.
The “second lane”, known as the New Evidence Lane will allow the Veterans Benefits Administration to reconsider the merits of a claim regarding veteran who possesses new evidence in support of new information.
For the “third lane” of this streamlined process, a formal appeals process will be put in place which allows for jurisdiction for review will be transferred to the Board of Veterans Appeals. At this stage of the process, a veteran may seek a hearing before a judge in order to review a case.
How are protections affected?
Currently, the Vietnam Veterans Association was the only organization to oppose this new legislation, arguing that the new streamlined process will solve the backlog at “too great a price for veterans” citing that individual protections will be weakened, including “duty-to-assist” obligations of the VA during the appeal process. However, other groups such as Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign wars, support the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act.
These groups contend with the VVA that “key protections weren’t sacrificed for expediency.” It is argued that although there will be a shift in the claims process, due process for individuals will be preserved. According to the executive director of DAV, Garry Augustine, “[d]ue process now is that veterans can continue to submit additional evidence at any time.” The law also protections the effective date of claims that are granted.