CCK attorney Brad Hennings interviewed Cheryl L. Mason, Chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals to discuss the work of the Board and the challenges the organization faces going forward. This event was part of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s Bar Association’s programming.
What Is the Board of Veterans’ Appeals?
The Board of Veterans’ Appeals is an administrative appellate body located in Washington, D.C. that decides claims that have been appealed from the VA regional offices. The Board is responsible for resolving appeals on behalf of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and the issues before the Board include appeals from the Veterans Benefits Administration, the Veterans Health Administration, and the National Cemetery Administration. The Board is not a part of the Veterans Benefits Administration, but IS part of the VA.
The Board largely consists of Veterans Law Judges (VLJs), attorneys and support staff. VLJs decide cases appealed to the Board and conduct hearings, whether they be at local regional offices, at the Board in Washington, D.C., or via live video. Currently, the Board is made up of approximately 930 people and is looking to grow to about 1,050 full-time employees by the end of September 2018. The Board currently has 91 VLJs and is hoping to confirm eight additional VLJs in the near future, for nearly 100 VLJs.
Listen to the conversation with Cheryl Mason here:
About Cheryl Mason
Cheryl Mason is originally from Ohio and attended Ohio Northern University. She obtained her law degree from Creighton University after moving to Nebraska with her husband who was serving on active duty. Following law school, she worked in private practice in Omaha, Nebraska. She and her husband moved to Washington, D.C. and she worked briefly at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals from 1990 to 1994. She held multiple positions before returning to the Board including a teaching position at Central Texas College, a contract investigator for the Department of Justice, and an attorney with the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
She then began working for the Board again in 1998 as an attorney. After five years serving as an attorney, she was appointed as a VLJ by President George Bush. Cheryl Mason worked her way up further at the Board and was then nominated to be the Chairman of the Board by President Trump.
What Does the Chairman of the Board Do?
The Board’s Chairman is tasked with leading the Board and providing direction to the organization, working with other leaders in VA, and conducting outreach. The Chairman, Cheryl Mason, discussed how each Chairman before her has embraced these three roles differently, and how she believes in dedication to all three.
Leading and Providing Direction
The Chairman also discussed how she believes it is her role at the Board to lead the organization and provide direction to all of its members. In this role, she works with the leadership of the Board, including the Vice Chairman and Deputy Vice Chairman, as well as the VLJs.
Collaboration with Leaders across VA
The Chairman works with the various Under Secretaries within the VA system, as well as the Office of General Council, Office of Information Technology, among many others. As the leadership team at VA, these individuals work together to show that they are delivering results to veterans.
The Chairman also conducts outreach through interviews, conferences, and trainings to provide information about what is going on at the Board and what the Board is doing. This is especially important currently with the implementation of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act (VAIMA), which will reform the VA appeals process.
Current Challenges at the Board
Brad Hennings and the Chairman discussed what she believes to be some of the problems currently facing the Board today.
Technology and Changing Internal Processes and Procedures
The Chairman mentioned how the Board’s technology has not been upgraded in approximately 40 years, and how the Board is currently working with the Office of Information Technology to upgrade their technology. She believes this poses a challenge because of the change that it will bring to their systems, and how things can be difficult any time a change is implemented in a large organization.
Additionally, the Board recently began using an interactive decision template in an effort to make the decision process clearer and more streamlined. Prior to this, the decision template had not been updated in about 20 years.
Board has Released Record Number of Decisions
The Board has increased its productivity in 2018 in terms of issuing decisions for veterans. From the beginning of 2018 to date, the Chairman estimates that the Board has issued 65,500 decisions. For comparison, she estimates that the Board issued around 40,000 decisions at this same time last year. She approximates that currently, the Board is producing 1,550 cases a week on average.
The Board’s goal this year is to issue over 81,000 decisions for veterans. Going forward, the Board plans to continue issuing decisions to veterans while they are changing procedures and processes under VAIMA. The way the Board will track cases will be different under VAIMA when it goes into effect in February 2019.
Appeals Reform and the Board
The Board lane of the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP) is set to open in October 2018 for veterans who have received a denial in RAMP. VAIMA is scheduled to go into full effect in February 2019. The Chairman states that they are on track to make the full change over to the new appeals system in February 2019. Before the new appeals system goes into effect, VA must issue new regulations that will determine how VA and the Board will handle cases and appeals in the new system, and the Chairman says that these regulations are “imminent.” The Board is also working on a new tracking system for appeals reform that is currently being piloted with some VLJs. The pilot will provide information to the Board on how certain appeal types are moving in the Board’s docket and track them as they go through.
The Future of the Board
The Chairman hopes to successfully implement the upcoming appeals reform to give veterans more choice over their appeals and the claims process. She hopes that there will be fewer appeals to the Board as a result of an increase in favorable decisions earlier on in the VA claims process. This would also allow the Board to make quicker decisions. She would like to see a more interactive and transparent process at the Board, and VA overall. She believes VA has made strides with the appeal tracking feature on vets.gov where veterans can see where their appeals are in the process. She would also like to see technology advancing in terms of the Board, representatives, and veterans themselves being able to see exactly where cases are. Upgrading the Board’s technology may also help the VLJs deliver decisions to veterans more quickly.