An 'enormous opportunity' to help veterans

A successful collaboration between the Department of Veterans Affairs, The American Legion and the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs (MDVA) resulted in more than $300,000 being awarded to veterans with VA claims appeals waiting to be adjudicated by the Board of Veterans Appeals. That collaboration has turned into a larger pilot program, and those involved at the earliest stages of the project are hoping it goes nationwide.

Since 2016, the MDVA claims division – comprised of several American Legion members – has been part of VA’s Pre-Hearing Conference program. The program got its start in St. Paul, Minn., and has since been expanded to 10 other VA Regional Offices: Cleveland; Montgomery, Ala.; Houston; Waco, Texas; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Denver; St. Petersburg, Fla.; San Diego; Oakland, Calif.; and Detroit.

The Pre-Hearing Conference program allows senior claims representatives with clients who have pending VA claims appeals to present those claims they feel should be easily adjudicated at the regional office to a BVA judge via teleconference. The judge can rule in favor of the veteran at that time or suggest the case go before the board; under no circumstance will a pre-hearing conference be a detriment to the veteran.

Zach Hearn, the Legion’s deputy director of benefits in the Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, said that VA – primarily BVA senior leadership – had been working with the Legion and other veterans service organizations “behind the scenes” on modernizing the department’s appeals process before a bigger push for modernization began in 2016.

Hearn said he was asked if the test program was something the Legion could do. “Minnesota’s got a superior department in the claims office, so I reached out to Ron Quade,” he said. “Ron was pretty much like, ‘Let’s do this.’ Ron’s always looking for new ways to tweak the system. He’s kind of like 3M: ‘I don’t necessarily invite it, but I make what it is better.’”

Quade, who doubles as the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs director of the Claims and Outreach Division, and as director of its Veterans Programs, jumped at the opportunity.

“We said ‘heck yes, we’re interested,’” said Quade, a member of American Legion Post 45 in New Prague, Minn. “It was an absolutely enormous opportunity to help some veterans get something they may have been waiting years to receive.”

Quade communicated with BVA Judge John J. Crowley, the man behind the idea. “It took us about two weeks to connect,” Quade said. “But when I say ‘connect,’ we connected. We were speaking the same language. The judge, right out of the gate, made a lot of sense to me. The goal he was trying to attain was very similar … to mine: What a program would look like, what his goal was, and for me, (to) advantage the veteran.”

Crowley handled pushing the program through VA officials in Washington, D.C., and also assisted with implementation in Minnesota. Quade said Crowley spoke about the program to an annual group of Minnesota county service officers this year. “He did a meet and greet … the first day and then stayed throughout the entire second day to do a presentation … and to be able to discuss cases. I bet he met with 25 or 30 (county service officers) while he was here. And he gave them all his cell phone number.”

The six pre-hearing conferences in 2016 and 2017 resulted in veterans with appeals winning more than $318,000 in compensation just from the MDVA office. “The amount of money they were able to secure … for these veterans was really impressive,” Hearn said. “It goes to show the benefit of VA working with the veteran community to try to improve its product line.”

But there is a hitch. Quade said when the program was established, it was determined that no cases appealed after April 2014 were eligible for a pre-hearing conference. But initially referred to as the two-year date, that date hasn’t been moved forward as the program has aged.

“It’s not a two-year date,” Quade said. “It’s a date that’s set in stone that continues to grow.”

Hearn said the Legion will ask VA to push that date forward. “I don’t think that anybody predicted the success would have been as great as it was in this pilot program,” he said. “It’s something that we’re going to have to sit down and talk about. You want to create a program to be longstanding. You can’t use a static date. Eventually you are going to run out of those cases.

“What do you do? Do you say that the program dies, or do you recognize the importance of the success of the program … and make a date flexible so VA’s better equipped to serve veterans? That is something that I will, over the next several months, be speaking with (BVA) on and say, ‘What is preventing us from moving this forward, and what sort of actions do we need to take to ensure that it happens?’”

Quade believes advancing the date will make a big impact on VA’s appeals backlog. “Let’s say tomorrow we can wipe out 10 percent of the entire backlog. It’s just gone,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be good for the remaining 90 percent and how fast the VA would be able to get to their claim? That’s our idea of how beneficial it can be if you can run through those cases.

“We are trying to do the best job for our claimants, and I really think we brought that through with this program.”