CCK’s Zachary Stolz Testifies at Hearing Before House Subcommittee on Veterans’ Affairs
On November 8, 2023, the House Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs held a legislative hearing to discuss a number of pending bills that would affect veterans and the VA disability benefits process.
What Was the Purpose of the Hearing?
Several bills were discussed during the hearing. These bills included:
- R. 1753 Jax Act —“To ensure that certain members of the Armed Forces who served in female cultural support teams receive proper credit for such service.”
- R. 3790 Justice for ALS Veterans Act of 2023 — “To amend title 38, United States Code, to extend increased dependency and indemnity compensation paid to surviving spouses of veterans who die from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, regardless of how long the veterans had such disease prior to death.”
- R. 4016 Veteran Fraud Reimbursement Act —“To amend title 38, United States Code, to improve the repayment by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs of benefits misused by a fiduciary.”
- R. 4190 Restoring Benefits to Defrauded Veterans Act — “To amend title 38, United States Code, to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to repay the estates of deceased beneficiaries for certain benefits paid by the Secretary and misused by fiduciaries of such beneficiaries.”
- R. 4306 Michael Lecik Military Firefighters Protection Act — “To amend title 38, United States Code, to establish presumptions of service connection for diseases associated with firefighting.”
- R. 5559: Protecting Veterans Claim Options Act — “ To amend title 38, United States Code, to establish certain rules of evidence in certain claims under laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.”
- R. 5891: Veteran Appeals Decision Clarity Act — “To amend title 38, United States Code, to improve decisions issued by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.”
- R. 5870: Veteran Appeals Transparency Act of 2023 — “To amend title 38, United States Code, to make certain improvements to the processing of claims for benefits under the laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the transparency of actions of Board of Veterans’ Appeals, and for other purposes.”
- R. 5890: Review Every Veterans Claim Act of 2023 — “To amend title 38, United States Code, to limit the authority of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to deny the claim of a veteran for benefits under the laws administered by such Secretary on the sole basis that such veteran failed to appear for a medical examination associated with such claim.”
- R. 5938: Veterans Exam Expansion Act of 2023 — “To amend the Veterans’ Benefits Improvements Act of 1996 and the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe, M.D. Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020 to improve the temporary licensure requirements for contract health care professionals who perform medical disability examinations for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and for other purposes.”
Who Testified at the Hearing?
The hearing was split up into three panels. The first panel included members of Congress who sit on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs’ Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.
The second panel was made up of speakers appearing on behalf of the Veterans Benefits Administration. This included:
- Beth Murphy — Executive Director of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
- Kevin Friel — Deputy Director of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
- Kenneth Arnold — Vice Chairmen of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Lastly, the third panel included speakers appearing on behalf of organizations that represent veterans. This included:
- Shane Liermann — Deputy National Legislative Director of Disabled American Veterans
- Quandrea N. Patterson — Associate Director of Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States
- Zachary M. Stolz — Partner at Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick
CCK’s Zachary Stolz Testifies Before the Subcommittee
During his testimony, Zach Stolz spoke on several of the bills. Here is a breakdown of Zach’s testimony:
H.R. 1753: Jax Act
Zach spoke about the Jax Act and how this piece of legislation is an important step in recognizing the honorable service of women veterans who deployed alongside Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Jax Act would positively impact women veterans and their ability to establish entitlement to VA benefits.
The provisions outlined in this legislation would provide veterans with appropriate combat presumptions.
H.R. 5890: Review Every Veterans Claim Act of 2023
Zach also testified about how this act would limit VA’s authority to deny a veteran’s claim solely based on the veteran’s failure to appear for a medical examination associated with the claim.
Veterans who fail to attend exams often have their claims denied and can have their case set back significantly. This legislation would help correct this issue.
H.R. 5938: Veterans Exam Expansion Act of 2023
The Veterans Exam Expansion Act aims to enhance the processing of veterans’ disability claims by increasing the availability of medical professionals for VA contract examinations. It proposes to extend license portability for psychologists, podiatrists, dentists, and optometrists, and increase the authority duration from three to five years, now set to expire in January 2026.
This expansion will improve veterans’ access to expert evaluations, crucial for substantiating their claims, especially under AMA. More qualified professionals in VA will lead to more efficient claims processing for veterans.
H.R. 5891: Veteran Appeals Decision Clarity Act
The AMA system introduced a significant procedural change by allowing claimants to submit their notices of disagreement (NODs) directly to the Board, instead of to the regional office. However, a recent case, “Kernz v. McDonough,” revealed a critical flaw in this process. Administrative professionals, not Board members, were reviewing NODs for timeliness, leading to numerous errors. Approximately 2,000 claimants had their timely appeals erroneously not docketed.
Mr. Kernz challenged this issue, but while his individual case was rectified, the Board did not proactively identify and correct similar errors for other claimants, citing the task’s burden. Instead, it asked claimants to report any perceived mistakes. Although Mr. Kernz’s appeal was dismissed as moot by the Court, and a class action certification was denied, the situation highlighted a systemic issue.
The proposed Act aims to address this by mandating Board members to directly handle all aspects of appeals, including the assessment of NODs’ timeliness. This change would ensure more accurate and complete decisions by the Board, providing claimants with a clearer understanding and rightful access to the appeals process.
H.R. 5559: Protecting Veterans’ Claim Options
In his testimony, Zach also described how the Protecting Veterans Claim Options Act would address how remanded cases are handled at the Board.
This legislation would allow appellants and their representatives to submit new evidence within 90 days after a case is remanded, which the Board is required to consider initially. This change is crucial because, under the current AMA system, veterans cannot add new evidence after a Court remand, often resulting in prolonged waits and potentially unfavorable outcomes that could have been altered with additional evidence.
Further, despite expectations of a lower Board remand rate with the AMA, the rate remains around 40 percent, much higher than expected. This Act could reduce this high remand rate and prevent veterans from being disadvantaged by having to start over with new appeals and docket numbers, aligning with the AMA’s goal of providing veterans with more control and efficient resolution of their appeals.
H.R. 5870: Veteran Appeals Transparency Act
Zach testified that this Act would increase understanding for veterans of where their claims are in the Board of Veterans’ Appeals process. This Act would require that the Board publish the docket dates of the cases assigned to a Board member for a decision for that week. Essentially, this would increase transparency and provide a greater understanding of the Board’s progress in working its docket.
Additionally, Zach cited a CCK case where CCK spent months pursuing a writ of mandamus from the Veterans Court. It took the Court months to provide basic information about how it was adjudicating cases in compliance with the laws governing docket order. If this Act were to become law, it would help Congress hold the Board accountable and provide important information to veterans.
H.R. 4016: Veteran Fraud Reimbursement Act
The Veteran Fraud Reimbursement Act would focus on better supporting veterans who have been victims of fiduciary fraud. In Zach’s testimony, he described how investigations into fraudulent fiduciary activities can be lengthy and create delays in providing the necessary compensation for affected veterans.
If this Act became legislation, it would prioritize compensating the victimized veterans promptly, without waiting to determine if VA was at fault. This legislation is crucial in effectively addressing the widespread issue of fraud against veterans.
H.R. 4190: Restoring Benefits to Defrauded Veterans Act
Zach also testified that this Act would address the issue of claimants who have suffered due to fraud by introducing new measures to offer them better compensation and support than what is currently available.
A key part of this legislation focuses on reallocating funds correctly in cases where the beneficiary has passed away before the issue is resolved. This change is crucial for ensuring that the funds are distributed more appropriately and fairly.
What Happens Next?
Following Zach’s testimony, the members of Congress had the opportunity to ask him and the other panel members questions about their experience and knowledge of representing veterans and their families before VA.
This hearing was conducted to gather information and consider the input of the Congressmembers and panel speakers. Next, the subcommittee will hold a markup meeting on the pending legislation.
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