What is the Appeals Modernization Act?
The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 began as a collaborative effort involving VA, Veterans Service Organizations, Congressional Staff, and other stakeholders. It quickly gained bipartisan support and was signed into law on August 23, 2017. The Appeals Modernization Act (AMA) restructured the entire VA disability appeals process in an effort to simplify and streamline the old appeals system, known as the Legacy system. AMA’s intent was to provide veterans, their families, and their survivors increased choice in handling disagreements with VA’s decisions. The new, multi-lane system was fully implemented on February 19, 2019. All requests for review of VA decisions that were issued on or after that date will be processed under AMA.
How Does the Appeals Modernization Act Work?
VA used to have a one-size-fits-all, single-queue appeals system (the Legacy system), in which veterans only had one review option. However, AMA allows veterans to choose from three different review options, or “lanes”, when filing an appeal:
- Higher-Level Review Lane. By choosing this lane, veterans are requesting that the Regional Office (RO) issue another decision based on a higher level of review. This review is conducted by a more experienced rating specialist at the RO who evaluates the veteran’s claim de novo (i.e. new look). The higher-level reviewer has the ability to overturn a previous decision based on a number of factors, including a clear and unmistakable error (CUE). In this lane, veterans are not allowed to submit additional evidence in support of their claims. Instead, the RO will issue a new decision based on the same evidence of record that was available at the time of the prior decision.
- Supplemental Claim Lane. This lane allows for the submission of new and relevant evidence. Furthermore, it is the only lane in which VA has a duty to assist veterans in gathering evidence to support their claims. Importantly, veterans will maintain the same effective dates for their claims when submitting new and relevant evidence as long as the supplemental claim is submitted within one year of the RO’s initial decision. Veterans can also submit a supplemental claim with new and relevant evidence after receiving an unfavorable decision from the higher-level review process, or after receiving a denial from the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Again, if veterans do so within one year of the decision, their effective date will be preserved.
- Notice of Disagreement Lane (i.e. Appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals). In this lane, veterans can appeal their cases directly to the Board following an initial decision from the RO, or an unfavorable decision in either the higher-level review lane or supplemental claim lane. With this change under AMA, veterans are able to skip the second level of review at the RO that previously existed under the Legacy system. There are an additional three dockets at the Board from which veterans can choose: the direct docket, hearing docket, and evidence docket.
- Direct Docket – for veterans who do not want to submit additional evidence to the Board, and do not want a hearing before a Veterans Law Judge. In this docket, the Board will only look at the evidence that was in the veteran’s file when the appealed decision was issued. VA has set a 365-day goal for issuing decisions in the direct docket Board lane, which is projected to be the fastest among all three options.
- Evidence Docket – for veterans who want to submit additional evidence, but do not want a hearing. In this lane, veterans can submit additional evidence to the Board with their Notice of Disagreement (NOD) and within the 90 days following their NOD.
- Hearing Docket – for veterans who want an in-person or teleconference hearing with a Veterans Law Judge. In this docket, veterans will have the opportunity to submit new evidence either at the hearing or within 90 days following the hearing.
Switching Lanes Under AMA
Importantly, veterans can change their request for a certain review option at any time prior to VA issuing an initial decision on their claim. Moreover, receipt of an unfavorable decision also presents an opportunity to change appeal lanes. Specifically, if veterans disagree with the decision VA made in one of the AMA lanes, they have the option to appeal to another lane based on the circumstances of their case. Generally speaking, veterans will have one year to appeal in order to preserve the effective date of their claim. However, after a Board decision, veterans can either file a supplemental claim within one year, or appeal to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims within 120 days. In both cases, the effective date will be preserved. Again, veterans must appeal any unfavorable decision within one year in order to preserve their effective date.
Veterans are also permitted to switch dockets at the Board level by modifying their Notices of Disagreement. All requests to modify must be made within one year of the Agency of Original Jurisdiction decision on appeal, or 30 days after the Notice of Disagreement is received by the Board, whichever is later.
Getting Help with the New AMA System
The Appeals Modernization Act is a new, largely untested system that even VA adjudicators are still learning. Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick LTD created the AMA Explained video to provide an overview of the new appeals system to help veterans understand how the updated process works. However, if you are not sure which lane is right for your case, reach out to a Veterans Service Organization or a VA-accredited legal representative for help. For a free case evaluation, call Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick LTD at 844-549-4500.