Every major veteran service organization except Vietnam Veterans of America supported legislation, signed into law last month, to reform a woefully clogged process for deciding appeals of veterans' disability claims.
Even VVA concedes the new "three-lane" option for appealing claims, when implemented via regulation a year or more from now, will produce speedier appeal decisions and begin to reverse what continues to be a steadily rising backlog of appeals, soon to surpass a stunning 500,000.
Every veteran appealing a claim knows something is wrong with a system that, on average, takes three years to get a final decision. The Department of Veterans Affairs says some veterans are waiting six years or more.
In May 2016, with Congress unable to agree on reforms and the backlog rising, then-VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson created a work group of senior VA officials, veteran organization representatives, Board of Appeals experts and, months later, key legislative staff. The product of that group became the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act, signed Aug. 23. Supporters say it gives veterans options for appeal better suited to individual circumstances. When a claim is denied, or a disability rating award disappoints, they will have three options to appeal.
Lane one is Local Higher- Level of Review. Veterans can request that a more experienced claims adjudicator review the same evidence considered by the original claims processor. The idea is to ensure that it was properly decided.
A second choice, the New Evidence lane, allows a veteran who has new evidence to support the claim to ask the Veterans Benefits Administration to reconsider the merits of the original claim based on that new information.
The third lane is a formal appeals process where jurisdiction for review transfers to the Board of Veterans Appeals. The veteran at this stage also can seek a hearing before a judge to review the case and that could include new evidence.
VVA alone argues that the new three-lane option for appeals will solve the backlog at too great a price for veterans, weakening individual protections including duty-to-assist obligations of the VA during claim appeals.
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