Legislation modernizes the veterans benefits appeals process

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Idaho veterans have shared detailed, personal accounts of how the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ claims appeals process could better serve veterans. They have shared these helpful insights through years of statewide veterans surveys, hundreds of town halls, and numerous other direct communications. For this reason, I co-sponsored S. 1024, the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act, to overhaul the current appeals process and replace it with a new multi-track system to ensure veterans and their families receive timelier decisions on essential benefits provided by the VA.

S. 1024 is the product of collaborative discussions among veterans, Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) and the VA, and provides the following key reforms to improve the appeals process:

• Establishment of a new three-lane process for processing appeals with flexibility to change lanes;

• Expedited treatment of claims remanded to local VA offices due to staff error;

• Ability for certain veterans with claims pending in the old system to opt into the new system;

• Requirement that the VA design a comprehensive solution for addressing the backlog in the current system;

• Protection of the effective date of a benefits award based on the original filing date;

• Facilitation of independent medical opinions needed to file an appeal; and

• Requirement for the VA to educate veterans on how to use the new system.

Idaho veterans have shed light on the challenges many face while going through the slow process of appealing a decision by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). According to the VBA, each year, approximately 10 to 12 percent of veterans applying for benefits from the VBA disagree with the agency’s decision and choose to appeal it. The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs reports that that the number of appeals has increased by 20 percent since 2015. According to a March 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office, in 2015 veterans waited an average of 3 years to receive decisions on their appeals. With an ever-increasing number of claims and an inventory of over 472,000 appeals already outstanding at the VA, reforms are needed so veterans can receive timely decisions regarding their eligibility status for benefits.

The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act has broad bipartisan support to address these and other issues surrounding the current appeals process at the VA. S. 1024, introduced by Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia), already has 19 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle as well as the backing of numerous VSOs. I look forward to the advancement of this legislation to make the claims and appeals process easier for veterans, their families and VSOs.

I made a promise to Idaho veterans that I would continue to press for sensible reforms that improve veterans services, and this measure would address unnecessary delays and current shortcomings at the VBA. As the VA works to create more efficiencies and direct resources to better benefit veterans, I am continuing to work to ensure that federal law supports and advances needed reforms. I cannot thank Idaho veterans, their families, VSOs and veterans service providers enough for the ongoing help and insight they provide in improving services for all veterans.

Mike Crapo is a Republican U.S. senator who represents Idaho in Congress.

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