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Veteran Appeals Reform
On August 23, 2017, President Trump signed into law the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017. The Act is meant to speed up the appeals process for VA disability compensation claims. Once enacted, the new law should simplify the current appeals process by allowing veterans to choose one of three paths to appeal their claims. Under the new system, veterans can:

  • request a higher-level VA adjudicator to decide their case (without new evidence);
  • appeal, with new evidence or information, to the same adjudicator who denied their claim; or,
  • send their appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA).

What You Need to Know

Q: When will the new appeals process take effect?

The earliest the appeals reform bill will become effective is February 14, 2019 which is 540 days from the signing of the bill. The bill was signed on August 23, 2017 so there will be no change to the appeals process until February 14, 2019 or later.

Q: Should I wait to submit my claim until the new system takes effect?

No. The sooner you file your initial claim, the better. If your claim is granted, VA will pay retroactive benefits (i.e. back pay) starting from the date you filed your claim. Waiting to submit your claim could cause you to receive less compensation than you would had you submitted your claim immediately.

Q: Should I wait to file an appeal until the new system takes effect?

No. You only have one year from the date of your Rating Decision (VA’s decision on your initial claim) to file an appeal.

Q: Can I opt in to the new system once it’s enacted?

Veterans with pending claims will be able to  opt in to the new appeals process if they receive notice of a decision on an initial claim on or after the date the Act is enacted (likely February 14, 2019). You can also opt in after receiving a Statement of the Case or Supplemental Statement of the Case on or after the date the Act is enacted.

How Will the New Appeals Process Work?

The proposed appeals process should streamline the parts of the review process that tend to increase wait times. In particular, the reforms target the processes surrounding new evidence and hearings. Currently, veterans can submit new evidence at any point during their appeal, which causes an additional round of reviews and drives up wait times. And veterans can wait years just to get a hearing scheduled. In the new appeals reform, veterans who request hearings before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals will go into their own queue instead of being included in the same line as veterans who did not request a hearing.

As mentioned, veterans will not be able to submit evidence at any stage of the process under the new appeals reform. There will be certain “lanes” that will give veterans the opportunity to submit evidence if they have anything additional they would like to include, as well as lanes for veterans who do not wish to submit additional evidence.

Note: The bill changes the language of new and “material” evidence to new and “relevant” evidence, but the meaning remains the same.

Click on the infographic below to see 1) what the current appeals backlog looks like, and 2) how the new appeals process will function. Or read the bill itself here.

 

You can also click here to download a PDF version of the infographic.

The Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP)

The Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP) is VA’s pilot program for the upcoming appeals reform. RAMP offers veterans the option of appealing their VA decisions into one of three lanes:

  • Higher Level Review. In this lane, veterans can have a more senior VA employee review their claim. In this lane, veterans are not able to submit new evidence in support of their claim.
  • Supplemental Claim. This lane is for veterans who want to submit evidence to VA in support of their claim. In this lane, VA has the “duty to assist” veterans in obtaining evidence.
  • Board of Veterans’ Appeals. This lane does not open to RAMP participates until October 2018 at the earliest. In this lane, veterans can appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and have their claim heard by a Veterans Law Judge.

At first, VA sent invitations to veterans who are eligible to opt in to RAMP, and only those who received an invitation could opt in to the program. However, as of April 2018, VA opened RAMP to all veterans with pending appeals not currently before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

Check out our blog and video “Revisiting RAMP” for more information on how the pilot program works.

We took to Facebook Live to dig deeper into the three lanes and how veterans will be impacted under the new program:

Other Noteworthy Changes

Duty to Assist

VA’s Duty to Assist veterans (for example, their obligation to help veterans get their medical records, service records and private records) during the claims process will only apply to original claims and supplemental claims (as defined above). The duty to assist law would no longer apply to the Board or to claims filed on the Higher Level Adjudication track.

Favorable Findings

Favorable findings made by an adjudicator during the claims process would be binding on all subsequent adjudicators (within the VA system), in the absence of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. Favorable findings will also be outlined in decisions issued under RAMP and the new appeals reform.

 

Are You Thinking About Opting In to RAMP?

Every case is different, and veterans should make an informed decision when opting in to RAMP.

Read our post on RAMP to find out if you should enroll.  

 

More Reading on RAMP:

“Everything You Need to Know About the New Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP)” gives a breakdown on the three lanes and any new developments that could impact veterans.

The Board of Veterans’ Appeals lane will open in October 2018. Learn more about appealing in to this lane.

RAMP opens to all veterans in April 2018. See if you are eligible to opt in to RAMP.

What Do RAMP Decisions Look Like? We looked at a Higher Level Review decision and a Supplemental Claim decision so you can know what to expect.

Robert Chisholm’s Article on RAMP offers statistics on how many veterans are opting in to RAMP and the grant rate for RAMP appeals.

RAMP Update: Statistics on how many veterans are opting in to VA’s new pilot program, grant rates for RAMP appeals, and what Regional Offices are handling RAMP appeals.

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