On July 24, 2018 the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a full committee hearing entitled “Assessing Whether VA is on Track to Successfully Implement Appeals Reform.” Testifying before the committee were the Undersecretary for Benefits, Paul Lawrence; Chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, Cheryl Mason; Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security at the Government Accountability Office, Elizabeth Curda; and the Deputy Chief Information Officer, Lloyd Thrower.
During the part of the hearing focused on the status of Appeals Reform, key concerns were discussed such as VA’s backlog in the current Legacy system, the fact that recommendations previously made by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have not yet been met, and the question as to whether VA will be able to implement the new software required for appeals reform by February 2019.
- IT Implementation. A major talking point throughout the hearing was VA’s IT program and the timeliness of its implementation. This software is tasked with managing appeals in the new appeals system. “Needless to say, appeals reform can’t go into effect unless the department’s computer programs are able to manage appeals in the new system,” said Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Phil Roe.
Previously, VA’s goal was to deliver 75% of its 17 core IT functions by August 2018, however, the completion as of the hearing was at just 35% with six out of 17 core functions completed. According to VBA’s Undersecretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence, the remaining 11 functions are expected to be implemented by December 2018. Committee members were concerned with this timeline and repeatedly questioned whether VA’s IT software implementation will be completed on time. When asked if there was a contingency plan in the event that implementation is not completed by February 2019, Mr. Lawrence suggested that appeals will be tracked and claims will be transferred between the Board and the Regional Office “manually.”
- New Regulations. VA is required to issue new federal regulations that will govern how appeals are handled under Appeals Reform. These regulations were submitted to the Federal Register for publishing and should be released for public comment sometime this week. At the time of this posting, the regulations have not been published.
- VA’s Backlog. Currently, VA has a backlog of nearly 430,000 pending appeals.. As of July 2018, roughly 64,000 decisions have been issued by the Board with a goal of completing 81,000 appeals by the end of September 2018. VA anticipates resolving all pending appeals in the Legacy system by end of fiscal year 2020.
- Low opt-in rates. As of July 2018, only 31,000, or 13% of eligible veterans, have opted in to the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP). Worries arose that the pool of veterans who have participated in RAMP is too small to test the effectiveness of how veterans choose to navigate the new process.
- Average RAMP processing time. The average time it takes for VA to adjudicate appeals in the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program is 84 days. It was noted that this wait time is significantly shorter than appeals adjudicated in the current Legacy appeals process, however, this may be related to the program’s low opt-in rate of veterans.
- Meeting GAO recommendations. The Government Accountability Office issued recommendations for VA to follow when implementing Appeals Reform. Thus far, VA’s plan addresses 18 of these and must still meet four more requirements.
According to GAO’s Elizabeth Curda, VA has not made progress in articulating a full set of goals when it comes to elements such as timeliness, customer satisfaction, establishing success measures, and delineating the total number of resources that will be necessary. Ms. Curda emphasized that these actions should be completed prior to the law’s full implementation. Overall, Ms. Curda gave VA’s progress a “C” rating on behalf of the GAO.
- Update to come in August. Much of the data presented in this hearing was from May 2018. An update of these figures is expected in August 2018.