The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 has passed in Congress and was signed by President Trump on August 23rd.
The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act is designed to “streamline the lengthy process that veterans undergo when appealing their claims for disability benefits” with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Improvement and Modernization Act will, at least in theory, help veterans navigate the VA system and challenge rejected benefit claims. It is also intended to reduce the appeals backlog with new approaches for veterans seeking benefits.
According to Phil Roe (R-TN), the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs:
(The) VA’s current appeals process is broken. Between fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2017, the number of pending appeals increased from approximately 380,000 to 470,000 – more than a 20 percent increase. Between fiscal years 2013 and 2016, Congress appropriated nearly $200 million more than the president’s request to address the appeals backlog. Despite the infusion of resources, VA estimates that it will take at least five years just to resolve the appeals currently pending.
According to Congressman Roe, who has championed this new law:
- VA’s current appeals process is broken;
- The backlog of appeals is out of control;
- Veterans who experience a disability as a result of their service deserve to have their appeals decided in a timely manner;
- The new system would help VA move through the backlog of appeals so veterans waiting on their disability decision can have peace of mind.
Submitting a Plan to Congress and the Comptroller General
Within 90 days after the Act has been enacted, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs is to submit to the appropriate committees of Congress and the Comptroller General of the United States a comprehensive plan for processing legacy appeals and implementing a new appeals system.
New Appeal Lanes
The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 would create three “lanes” for veterans’ appeals. This includes the “Local Higher Level Review Lane.” Under this system, an adjudicator reviews the same evidence considered by the original claims processor.
There will also be a “New Evidence Lane.” Under this process, a veteran can submit new evidence for review and have a hearing.
There will also be a “Board Lane.” Under this lane, jurisdiction for an appeal would transfer immediately to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.
The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 would give the Secretary the authority to test the new system prior to full implementation. It would also allow some veterans already going through the appeals process to opt into the new system.
It would also require the VA to provide a plan for implementing the new system and a subsequent certification by the Secretary that the department is prepared to implement the changes.
The bill also requires the Secretary to submit periodic reports to Congress, including information on how many appeals are pending in both the modernized system and the legacy system.
Changing the VA
As always, the impact of new legislation on a federal agency remains to be seen. Expectations that have been declared when a new law passes do not always turn out to be realistic. Exuberant hopes and glowing press releases may turn into disappointment when the exuberance of interest groups upon passage of a new law runs into bureaucratic realities.
The VA is facing a number of changes. The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 as well as the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Law will make changes in the agency and should, at a minimum, make employment interesting for the federal employees working there.