Will changing the appeal process to make it faster result in more denied appeals?
Recently President Trump signed the "Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017" (HR2288) into law. The law is designed to streamline the appeal process for disability claims. Will the law accomplish what it is supposed to do? Let's take a look.
The Disability Claim Appeal Process
Many veterans don't know that if they disagree with a decision made by the VA regarding any of their VA benefits they can appeal the VA's decision. Normally, a veteran has one year from the notification of VA's decision to appeal it. Check out Military.com's overview of the appeal process for all the details on how to file an appeal. In the past, most appeals were sent directly to the Board of Veterans' Appeals (BVA) which would rule on the VA's decision.
The BVA has long been overworked and understaffed, in 2015 there were only 63 attorneys on the board and they processed more than 69,000 appeals. According to the American Legion more than 470,000 appeals were pending as of spring 2017. The average wait time for an appeal to be decided is currently five years. The legion says that if nothing changes, by 2027 veterans will wait an average of 10 years to get a decision.
Realizing the bottleneck in the appeal process was the overworked BVA, the legion and other veteran service organizations worked with legislators to develop a three route appeal process, which hopefully will remove the BVA from most appeals. The three routes are called "lanes" in the new legislation:
- Local Higher Level Review Lane - where a new VA supervisor reviews the same evidence considered by the original claims processor.
- New Evidence Lane - where the veteran submits new evidence for review and has a hearing.
- Board Lane - where the appeal transfers immediately to the Board of Veterans Appeals.
The legion says this new process is expected to shorten the average wait time for final appeal decisions from five years to 125 days.
Will It Work As Advertised?
Our take - it will make things better, but not as good as they say.
Yes, the BVA is overworked and understaffed, so delegating much of their authority to local offices will take that bottleneck out of the picture. But, this option has been in place since 2001 - veterans have long had the right to have a Decision Review Officer at their local VA office review any disability claim decision instead of sending an appeal to the BVA.
The local offices have more employees available to review claims than the BVA does. But, more than 25% of existing original disability claims have been waiting more than 125 days for a VA decision. Adding appeals to the local offices' workload won't help. Also, some offices work faster than others, and some offices are notoriously stingy about giving out disability benefits. Sending a claim back to the original office which denied you won't necessarily change that problem.
Yes, it is faster and cheaper for the VA to hire claims examiners in local offices than lawyers for the BVA. Yes, the VA doesn't have as large of a disability backlog as they did just 2 years ago. Yes, more options and less lawyers is always a good thing.
Bottom line, expect the appeals process timeline to drop from 5 years to 3 years immediately. When the VA gets all the details ironed out, you can probably expect an appeal to take 12 - 18 months. A good thing.