WASHINGTON — Veterans unhappy with their benefits payouts have a five-year average wait today if they appeal the decision, thanks to outdated and cumbersome review process.
House lawmakers are hopeful that soon they can take years off that wait.
Members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee debated draft legislation on Tuesday that would radically overhaul the Veterans Affairs benefits appeals process, a move designed to simplify a bureaucracy that has left tens of thousands of veterans flummoxed.
The number of pending appeals cases has grown by almost 100,000 cases over the last two years, topping 470,000 in April. That backlog comes even as VA successfully pulled down the number of overdue first-time cases and shifted more resources to the appeals problem.
At issue are a host of protections in the appeals system designed to allow veterans to submit new medical information at any time in the review process. The rules are designed to protect veterans interests by providing the most current information, but has the practical effect of frequently restarting the appeals process after minor updates.
Lou Celli Jr., the American Legion's director of the National Veterans Affairs division, said the rules cause a "multi-year purgatory of claims and appeals waiting to be served." Committee chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., called the current system "broken" and frustrating.
"VA's current appeals system is slow, cumbersome and just doesn't serve veterans well," he said at the hearing. "We have to do better … Congress has to make some changes to give VA the tools it needs to ensure that veterans receive a fair and timely decision on their appeals."
Department officials for the last year have lobbied Congress for fixes, but the bill under consideration in the committee appears to be the best hope so far in overhauling the system.
It could create new options on how veterans can have their cases appealed. In some, they’d waive the chance to submit new evidence or official hearings in favor of quicker resolutions. In others, they’d retain those rights, but face stricter timelines for submissions and responses.
That idea drew praise from VA officials. David Spickler, acting vice chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, said the new process would "give veterans clear options after receiving an initial decision on a claim."
The measure also includes simplified notification processes, better oversight of case management and more collaboration with outside groups on streamlining the process.
Implementing the changes will likely take 18 months from the measure becoming law, if it can get through Congress.
At least one veterans advocacy group is standing in the way.
Officials from Vietnam Veterans of America on Tuesday released a statement calling the proposed legislation problematic as drafted, saying it "ignores the need for legal precedent in the VA claims process, limits due process protections, and compromises the non-adversarial, pro-veteran claims system at the convenience of VA."
But officials from other advocacy groups offered their support for the idea and the new legislation as a path ahead.
"If we stay put, the situation will never improve," said Ryan Gallucci, director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ National Veterans Service. "That’s unacceptable."
He and other advocates invited to testify at the hearing pushed for minor fixes to the process, but endorsed the overall overhaul idea.
Lawmakers at the hearing expressed frustration that millions of dollars put into the system in recent years has not led to better short-term fixes to the appeals process. But VA officials have repeatedly said that without changes in the law governing how often veterans can restart the appeals process, they can only make small improvements.
No timetable has been set for when the committee may vote on the appeals overhaul. Both Roe and committee ranking member Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said they hope to move quickly on the legislation and work with the Senate, with the goal of finalizing the bill later this year.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.