"This is a big one," President Donald Trump said Wednesday as he signed into law a bill to reform and speed up the appeals process on disability ratings at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
At the American Legion's annual convention in Reno, Nevada, Trump praised the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 that he said would enable veterans "to get decisions in a fraction of the time."
According to the White House, more than 470,000 veterans currently are awaiting appeals decisions on their disability ratings as they seek improved benefits. Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, who stood next to Trump as he signed the bill, has said that some appeals cases can take as long as six years to process.
Following the signing, Trump handed the pen to Charles E. Schmidt, national commander of the 2.2 million-member American Legion. He handed a folder with a copy of the bill to Medal of Honor recipient Donald E. Ballard.
As a Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class, "Doc" Ballard threw himself on a grenade in Vietnam on May 16, 1968, to save a wounded Marine he was aiding and four other Marines. Realizing the grenade had not gone off, Ballard then threw it at the enemy before it exploded and went back to tending the wounded.
Trump congratulated American Legion members and their leaders who "pressed so hard for that legislation." He also praised their lobbying skills -- "they have a lot of power, a lot of power, and they use it well," he said.
In addition to the Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and AMVETS supported and advocated for the passage of the legislation, the White House said.
The VA currently provides about $63.7 billion in compensation annually to about 4.1 million veterans living with service-connected disabling conditions.
The reforms in the bill would apply almost entirely to newly-filed appeals, and not the existing backlog, according to the VA.
"No longer will veterans be kept waiting for years to get an answer to their appeals," Trump said in Reno. "They will receive timely updates and they will get decisions much more quickly in a fraction of the time."
The bill -- whose main sponsors were Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, in the Senate and Rep. Mike Bost, R-Illinois, in the House -- was passed unanimously in the House and Senate earlier this month.
In a statement, Bost said "this new law is vitally important for America's heroes and their families. Too many veterans are faced with intolerable delays during the VA's benefits claims appeal process. By modernizing the system, we can now ensure they get the help they need in a more efficient and effective manner."
Advocates for the bill said it would give veterans more options on how to appeal benefits decisions they think are unfair and do not compensate them adequately.
The bill will create three "lanes" for veterans' appeals, including the "Local Higher Level Review Lane" in which an adjudicator reviews the same evidence considered by the original claims processor; the "New Evidence Lane," in which the veteran could submit new evidence for review and have a hearing; and the "Board Lane," in which jurisdiction for the appeal would transfer immediately to the Board of Veterans' Appeals."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.