Appeals modernization hits roadblock

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VA will not meet its goal of reducing legacy appeals by end of 2021

Despite drastically reducing a backlog of veteran appeals, the Department of Veterans Affairs will not meet its goal of settling all legacy appeals by the end of 2021, officials told a Congressional panel in July.

About 102,000 legacy appeals—claims the VA decided before the implementation of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017—were waiting to be adjudicated, at the time of the hearing, down from an all-time high of nearly a half-million in November of 2017.

“For too long VA’s legacy appeals process was slow, complex, contained multiple processing steps and split jurisdiction between VA’s three administrations and the Board of Veterans Appeals,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, of Virginia, who served 20 years in the U.S. Navy veteran and currently chairs the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.

“Continuous evidence gathering” also hindered the appeals process, she added, causing veterans to face exceptionally long delays, “with some waiting three to seven years for a final decision.”

The Board of Veterans Appeals had around 76,000 pending hearings in February 2020. Legacy and AMA appeals were 59,000 and 17,000, respectfully. But pending hearings ballooned to 91,000 as of July. Of those, 40,000 were legacy hearings.

VA initially agreed to clear the backlog of legacy cases by 2022 when Congress passed the DAV-backed appeals modernization bill, dubbed the AMA, in 2017. However, agency officials told the subcommittee that the pandemic had hampered the department’s efforts to resolve the backlog in a timely fashion.

“The delay in exams and records is impacting the VA’s ability to complete legacy remands and return those to the board,” Chairwoman of the Board of Veterans Appeals, Cheryl Mason, told the committee during the July hearing.

DAV represented more than 16,000 appeals before the Board in 2020, nearly 20% of all Board decisions in the fiscal year 2020, the most significant amount of any accredited veterans service organization.

The AMA, which VA fully implemented in 2019, created three options for veterans looking to reverse a VA decision. Veterans can seek a higher-level review of their claim, file a supplemental claim with additional evidence, or appeal directly to the Board.

Although the VA has made improvements, “DAV is concerned about the long-term and potentially negative impact of the pending backlog of hearings,” Deputy National Legislative Director Shane Liermann told the subcommittee.

“If the Board and [Veterans Benefits Administration] don’t have a plan put in place to address the issue now, we’re going to see a backlog that will continue to grow over time,” he added.

To help shrink the sheer number of veteran appeals, in August, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced the appointment of 20 Veterans Law Judges.

“Veterans Law Judges are a key part of ensuring veterans receive the benefits and services they have earned and deserve,” McDonough said in a statement announcing the appointments. “Once I swear in the new judges, this puts in place added resources to reduce the appeals inventory.”

Those judges will receive “extensive training from seasoned mentor judges,” according to the release. Most of the new judges will arrive before the end of the year. Additional judges are expected to be appointed in 2022.

Veterans awaiting decisions can check the status of their appeal through VA’s status tracker. To learn more about the process, visit va.gov/decision-reviews.