New VA Secretary Faces 400,000-Case Appeals Backlog, IT Delay

FILE PHOTO -- Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert Wilkie, left, talks with John Wells of Military Veterans Advocacy before the start of a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee nominations hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
FILE PHOTO -- Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert Wilkie, left, talks with John Wells of Military Veterans Advocacy before the start of a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee nominations hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Among the many challenges facing new Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie is the long-standing backlog in disability claims appeals, which currently totals more than 400,000 cases.

As acting secretary at the VA in May, Wilkie said, "VA is committed to transforming the appeals process" through the Rapid Appeals Modernization Plan (RAMP).

However, Congress was told last week that the technology improvements needed to make the new system work are behind schedule.

RAMP is a pilot program under the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act signed by President Donald Trump last summer, which has a deadline for being in place of February 2019.

However, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said, "The VA has been fairly famous for not delivering on time."

At a committee hearing last week, VA officials testified that the original plan was to have about 75 percent of the information technology (IT) updates in place by August; instead, only about 35 percent of the improvements will be ready.

Despite the IT delay, Paul Lawrence, the VA's new undersecretary for benefits, said the agency is on track to meet the February deadline for reforming the extremely complex appeals process.

He said the IT systems should be ready to go, but should there be more delays, the Veterans Benefits Administration is prepared to implement the new process manually.

"We are very confident in our delivery schedule right now," said Lloyd Thrower, deputy chief information officer and benefits account manager for the VA's Office of Information and Technology. He said the 35 percent figure for August involves the "heavy-lift pieces" of the new system and the process should go more quickly in the fall.

"It will be challenging" for the VA to meet the February deadline, Elizabeth Curda, director of education, workforce and income security at the Government Accountability Office, told the committee. "As it stands now, I'm a little concerned about the lack of detail."

When asked by Rep. Amata Coleman Radewagen, the Republican delegate from American Samoa, to grade the progress on implementing RAMP, Lawrence said he would give the VA an "A-minus."

Curda said she would give it a "C."

Roe said, "Realistically, VA is running out of time to address these issues if the department hopes to implement the new system by February 2019. We all agree that the success of this reform is critical because the current appeals process is failing veterans miserably."

Noting the backlog of more than 400,000 appeals, he said, "Many veterans will end up waiting at least six years just for the decision on their appeal. Veterans and their families deserve better."

Under the RAMP program, veterans can choose to withdraw their existing claim and transfer to two new "lanes" for a quicker decision.

According to the VA, the "Supplemental Claim Lane" is for veterans with additional evidence to present on their initial claim. The "Higher Level Review Lane" is for veterans with no additional evidence to present, but who feel there was a mistake in the initial claims decision.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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