By Steven Henry, associate legislative director of Paralyzed Veterans of America
The appeals process for Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) benefits claims has been under scrutiny for lengthy wait times and inaccurate decisions. In hopes of streamlining and improving the process, the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 was introduced and subsequently signed into law in August 2017 (Public Law 115-55). The requirements in the law are scheduled to take effect in February 2019.
The law’s passage was a collaborative effort between Congress, the VA, and many veterans service organizations (VSOs) to address the increasing wait times for veterans who have appealed their benefit claims. Historically, veterans would wait an average of two years for their appeal at the Regional Office (RO) and three to five years if they appealed their claim to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA).
Rapid Appeals Modernization Program
Within Public Law 115-55, Congress authorized VA to establish a pilot program to determine what processes to modernize appeals would be successful. Soon after the bill was signed into law, VA created the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP).
Historically, when veterans would exhaust their appeal rights at the RO level, they could have elected to appeal their claim to the BVA located in Washington, DC. As part of their appeal, veterans had the option to have the appeal completed by an in-person hearing; a “travel board,” hearing which involves judges traveling to ROs to conduct hearings; or an Informal Hearing Presentation (IHP), which involves the veteran’s representative presenting an argument on their behalf.
RAMP provides veterans with an alternative to the traditional appeals process. With RAMP, veterans have two options or “lanes” to choose from rather than appealing their claims to the BVA: Supplemental Claim or Higher Level Review. If the veteran chooses the Higher Level Review, he or she would then have their case decided by an experienced Decision Review Officer (DRO). By choosing the Higher Level Review, the veteran agrees not to submit any further evidence; consequently, the case will be decided on the evidence already on record. If the veteran chooses the Supplemental Claim lane, the veteran has the ability to submit more evidence to substantiate his or her claim. If the veteran receives a less than favorable decision from either lane, he or she has the ability to choose a different lane and proceed through the process again.
PVA’s position on RAMP is that it may not be the correct choice for every veteran, but should be decided on a case-by-case basis. As of November 2018, VA has mailed out 326,000 RAMP notices to veterans, including veterans who are represented by PVA, out of which only 74,000 have chosen to opt in. Currently, the average time to complete a RAMP claim is 120 days and there is a grant rate of 27 percent. It is important that veterans who have received a RAMP notice contact their local National Service Officer to discuss their case and to determine if opting into RAMP would be beneficial.
While adjudicating claims using the RAMP program, VA has been simultaneously taking steps toward implementation of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act. This program involves many facets and will take some time to develop all the different pieces to make it successful.
One of the biggest concerns from the VSOs is how VA is going to address the appeals that are currently at the BVA, commonly referred to as “traditional appeals.” VA has maintained that the BVA is making extraordinary progress in adjudicating these appeals. VA has stated that they are on track to meet their goal of an excess of 80,000 decisions.
During the July 24 hearing, there was an exchange between BVA Chairman Cheryl Mason and Congressman Brian Mast (R-FL). Congressman Mast asked Chairman Mason how much time is dedicated to each case. She replied that attorneys will review thousands of pages of evidence and write a decision all within eight hours. PVA agrees with Congressman Mast’s response that for employees to be required to review that many pages of evidence and provide a written decision (some of which are up to ten pages in length), all within eight hours, is “troubling.” PVA is concerned that VA is emphasizing quantity over quality; consequently, veterans will appeal those decisions to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) creating a new backlog.
PVA is pleased that VA has been transparent during the implementation process. There have been monthly meetings where VA leadership has updated VSOs with the latest RAMP data and where they are in the implementation of the law. PVA will continue to work with VA on implementation in the coming months and years.
For any updates regarding RAMP or Appeals Modernization, please contact myself at StevenH@pva.org or 202-416-7748.