Legion embraces VA’s efforts to implement appeals reform

The American Legion submitted a written testimony to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Jan. 30 for an oversight hearing examining the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) implementation of appeals reform through House Resolution (H.R.) 2288, the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017.

“We all agree that the success of this reform is critical because the current appeals process is failing veterans miserably,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., committee chairman. “Right now, VA has a backlog of more than 470,000 appeals (as of last October) and many veterans will end up waiting at least six years just for a decision on their appeal. Veterans and their families deserve better.”

According to VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman’s testimony, he said the department launched a pilot appeals system, called the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP), as part of its 18-month plan to test resolve the legacy appeals inventory. This plan, which is a collaborative effort by the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), was submitted within the 90 days that Congress allotted following the enactment of H.R. 2288.

Bowman said the VA expects to fully implement RAMP by 2019. In the meantime, the department will promulgate regulations, establish procedures, hire and train personnel, implement IT system changes, conduct outreach and gather data for trend analyses and metrics reporting.

“VA’s current plan to reduce the existing backlog is to use the existing authority that we gave it to test a new appeals system,” Roe said. “Under RAMP, veterans that have (pending) appeals are being given the option to withdraw their existing appeal and transfer it to the new system. I have several concerns about RAMP including why the (BVA), which has more than 470,000 pending appeals, is not included in the program.”

The American Legion asserts that RAMP does not give veterans all of the options that will be available in the new framework. This is because a veteran won’t be able to choose the expedited lane to BVA until full implementation of the system in February 2019.

Without the benefits of the enhanced decision notice and all options being available, The American Legion believes that the choices made in RAMP will produce information of limited value about what veterans will do in the new framework.

The American Legion urges caution in relying on the data compiled under RAMP as a predictor of future behavior after the legislation is fully implemented.

“Another concern is the lack of veteran participation in RAMP,” Roe said. “VA has indicated that the data gathered from RAMP will help inform decisions on the implementation of the reforms. However, according to VA, only three percent of eligible veterans have chosen to participate in the program. Unless more veterans participate in RAMP, it’s hard to see how VA will collect enough data to develop an effective plan to successfully implement appeals reform.”

Bowman said the VA has a clearly defined strategy for managing the new process and legacy appeals workload, and is committed to transparency in its reporting.

“The new system is easier to understand. Veterans will be able to tailor reviews to their needs and it will provide both faster decisions and greater transparency,” Bowman said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. Our implementation strategy is synchronizing efforts across the department.”

While some criticism has been directed to RAMP, the Legion believes that VBA’s efforts are completely appropriate given the complexities inherent in the transition from the legacy appeals system to the appeals modernization framework.

“With RAMP data and (feedback from veterans, Congress and veteran service organizations), we can refine the processes and correct the problems before full implementation,” Bowman said. “We’re intent on shaping a veterans-centric system that’s responsive to their needs and preferences.”

In an effort to assess whether the VA’s appeals plan addresses the required elements identified in H.R. 2288, U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said GAO produced a report that compares the appeals plan and supplemental materials against relevant sound planning practices and other criteria.

“Their report makes it clear that key elements are either incomplete or missing,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., ranking member of the committee. “This raises significant concerns, yet GAO describes VA’s plan as ‘a positive step forward.’”

While VA’s plan does address most of the Modernization Act’s required elements for the new and legacy disability appeals processes, Dodaro stated in his written testimony that the plan partially addresses or does not address five of 22 elements. He said it does not contain sufficient details about metrics for tracking the implementation progress, or the metrics and goals for identifying potential issues related to implementation.

However, Dodaro said VA officials disagree with GAO’s assessment and exclaimed that the agency is developing more detailed project plans and schedules.

“VA is tracking progress with timelines and goals, milestones and deadlines that will improve based upon GAO’s recommendations,” Bowman said. “Once implemented, veterans can expect, on average, a processing time of 125 days for higher-level reviews and supplemental claims, and 12 months for appeals to the (BVA) when they choose direct review of the issue without a hearing or submitting additional evidence.”

Dodaro also noted that the VA’s appeals plan does not address the following elements as required in Section 3 of H.R. 2288:

- An estimate of personnel required for either VBA or the BVA for the period when the agency would no longer be processing legacy appeals – Section 3(b)(2);

- Projected productivity information for VBA processing of appeals under the new process – Section 3(b)(12);

- Milestones for reducing legacy appeals, the expected number of appeals, remands and hearing requests at VBA or the expected number of hearing requests at the BVA each year – Section 3(b)(17); and

- A delineation of the total resources required by the VBA and BVA to implement the new system while addressing pending legacy appeals – Section 3(b)(1).

Without complete information on all of the required elements, Dodaro said Congress does not have what it needs to fully conduct oversight of the VA’s appeals plan, or the agency efforts to implement and administer RAMP while addressing legacy appeals.

“Transparency is fundamental to rebuilding veterans’ trust. It’s not only the trust of veterans that we’re trying to develop and maintain, but also the trust of Congress, VSOs, stakeholders and the American public,” Bowman said. “We will improve during this transition period.”

The GAO report outlined several other key areas where the VA’s appeals plan can be improved. According to Dodaro, he concludes that the plan reflects sound planning practices but could improve on others; indicates steps to assess process changes but should also include goals and measures to provide a full picture of success; needs a reliable implementation schedule to manage the project; and addresses some but not all key risks related to the new appeals process.

“There will be needs, there will be adjustments and there will be changes as we go forward, based upon what we learn during the RAMP process,” Bowman said.

At the end of his testimony, Bowman also discussed the VA’s progress with developing information technology updates required to accomplish appeals reform; timelines for hiring and training employees on the new appeals system; workforce planning and human capital planning; legacy appeals strategy; appeals resources; and stakeholder engagement.

Walz said the committee is dedicated to finding ways to make appeals reform work for veterans.

“If we get it right, the current out-of-date system we know is not serving veterans will be transformed into one veterans can trust to be fair, timely and perhaps, most of all, respectful of their service,” Walz said. “I am intent on insuring that VA continues to seek and incorporate (other) suggestions as regulations, practices and procedures are finalized.”

As a primary VSO stakeholder, The American Legion fully supports the VA’s efforts to resolve the legacy appeals inventory through RAMP and also looks forward to learning of VBA’s plans to ensure that the higher-level reviews are done in an appropriate manner. The Legion encourages the VBA and BVA to consider engaging in joint training to foster a common understanding regarding how appeals decisions should be addressed under the new appeals framework.

The American Legion supports H.R. 2288 and fully intends to support its VA partners in this transformative effort.