Since November 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been inviting some veterans who already filed an appeal of their claim to join the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP). RAMP was designed as a pilot program to test the new VA appeals system, signed into law in August 2017, before its full implementation in February 2019.
Until recently, VA’s plan was to allow veterans only partial access to the new appeals system, preventing RAMP participants from taking their claims to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA or “the Board”) until February 2019. But at a recent conference hosted by the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates (NOVA), Chairman of the Board Cheryl Mason announced that VA anticipates opening the Board lane to RAMP participants as early as October 2018.
Opening the Board lane to veterans enrolled in RAMP could help address concerns raised by many at a January 2018 House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. Lawmakers at the hearing, as well as a representative from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), expressed serious doubts about VA’s ability to fully implement the new appeals system without first testing the new process at the Board.
The Legacy Appeals system is the current VA appeals system; the system for veterans with current appeals who have not opted into RAMP.
In the Legacy Appeals system, veterans can appeal their cases to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA or “the Board”) after submitting an appeal and receiving a decision at the Regional Office level (see “Legacy Appeals” diagram at left).
The Board is known to veterans for its long wait times due to the decades-old appeals backlog at the VA. As of October 31, 2017, there were over 471,000 benefits-related appeals pending at the VA. 155,761 of those pending appeals were waiting for a decision at the Board. As a result, it takes six years, on average, from the time a claimant files a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) until they receive a Board decision and three years from the time one files a VA Form 9 (VA 9), according to the Board’s annual report.
The “Board Lane” in the New Appeals System
In addition to ever-increasing wait times for appeals in general, the several-year wait times at the Board are a significant part of the reason lawmakers and veterans wanted to reform the VA appeals process in the first place. The new appeals system – signed into law as the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 (VAIMA) – was designed to resolve most appeals at the Regional Office level in order to relieve the Board of some of its backlog (see “Appeals Reform” diagram below).
In another attempt to reduce the backlog, VAIMA allows for three different dockets at the Board, depending on whether the veteran wants to submit additional evidence or have a hearing. Essentially, a docket is a waiting list for cases. When a veteran has been “docketed,” they receive a letter from the Board with their docket number. Docketed cases are reviewed in chronological order. So, having three dockets will mean faster processing for some veterans.
Once the new appeals system is fully implemented, veterans who choose to take their cases to the Board will have three docket options when submitting their Notice of Disagreement (NOD):
- Direct Docket – Veterans who choose the Direct Docket option will receive direct review by the Board of the evidence that was before the Agency of Original Jurisdiction (usually the veteran’s Regional Office) in the decision on appeal. In other words, veterans will not submit new evidence or have a hearing, so the Board will review the evidence already in the veteran’s claims file (c-file) to make their decision. The Direct Docket will likely be the quickest-moving docket. VA has a goal of 365-day processing for claims on the Direct Docket.
- Evidence Only Docket – Veterans who choose the Evidence Only Docket will be able to submit evidence for up to 90 days after submitting their NOD. These veterans will not have a hearing with a Veterans Law Judge. VA predicts this docket will move faster than the Hearing Docket, but more slowly than the Direct Docket.
- Hearing Docket – Veterans who choose the Hearing Docket will be scheduled for a Board hearing with a Veterans Law Judge. Veterans will be able to submit evidence for up to 90 days after the hearing is held. In the current system, there is a substantial waitlist for Board hearings, so this docket will likely take the longest for the Board to process.
Why RAMP needs a Board Lane, too
Currently, veterans who opt into the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP) only have access to the two appeal lanes that operate at the Regional Office level. Veterans participating in RAMP do not yet have access to the Board lane.
To Predict Resource and Staffing Needs
In a January 2018 House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing (and in a GAO report from the same period), lawmakers and government officials expressed concerns about VA’s choice to keep the Board lane closed to RAMP participants. Given that veterans who participate in the new appeals system will be able to take their claims directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA or “the Board) instead of going through the Regional Office channels first, VA cannot just assume that the Board case load will be the same as in the current Legacy Appeals system.
RAMP, as a pilot program, is supposed to give VA an idea of how the new system will function before it is fully implemented in February 2019. Without including the Board in the pilot, especially in its new form with three dockets, VA will not be able to accurately estimate the number of staffing and IT resources required to keep up with the case load and prevent another backlog from accumulating.
Similarly, VA set a goal of 365-day decisions for Board appeals without additional evidence or a hearing (appeals in the Direct Docket), but has not yet estimated how long it will take for appeals to be processed in the Evidence Only and Hearing Dockets. Without testing the Board lane and setting realistic goals, VA will not have enough information to allocate resources between the three Board Dockets.
To Encourage Veterans to Join RAMP
Between November 2017, when RAMP was debuted, and March 8, 2018, VA sent out 84,546 RAMP invitations. Only 2,462 claimants (about 3 percent of those invited) opted to withdraw from the Legacy Appeals process to participate in RAMP. According to the January GAO report, VA estimated that about 10 percent of veterans invited would opt in. These low participation rates also impact VA’s ability to predict the staffing and resources they will need to allocate to the new appeals system.
Many veterans, as well as lawmakers, have expressed concerns about opting into RAMP when appealing to the Board is not an option. Especially for veterans who have been waiting for years for a Board hearing or decision, the idea of opting into RAMP and losing their place in line is highly unappealing. Opening the Board Lane as part of RAMP would make this less of an issue, allowing VA to collect data on a set of veterans at all different stages of the appeals process.
Opening the Board Lane
And at the Spring 2018 National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates (NOVA) Conference, which took place March 15-17, Cheryl Mason, Chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, gave a presentation on the current state of the Board and how the new appeals system will function at the Board level. In her presentation, she announced that VA hopes to open the Board Lane to RAMP participants as early as October 2018.