White House officials are pushing Congress to overhaul the appeals process for veterans benefits claims this year, noting the shrinking legislative window and calling the system a disaster.
"We're failing veterans," said Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson. "This process is failing veterans. Nobody can defend the status quo here."
More than 440,000 veterans have appeals cases pending in the benefits system, a caseload that has risen steadily in recent years as officials have focused on pulling down the number of backlogged first-time claims.
But VA officials have insisted the two aren't connected, noting the percentage of cases appealed has remained steady. Instead, the problem has been the rising number of total claims from veterans, as more troops deal with issues from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Vietnam.
Today, the average completion time for appeals cases decided by the Veterans Benefits Administration is three years, the average for cases decided by the Board of Veterans Appeals is five years. Officials have not seen increases in the rate of success among the appeals, but have noted that the process is frustratingly cumbersome for both veterans and staff.
VA leaders have floated a plan to get that process down to under a year and a half for most cases, but they need congressional intervention to rework filing timelines and evidence submission rules.
They're hoping the veterans omnibus looming in the Senate will include those changes, and are making another lobbying push this week for its inclusion.
That includes a new White House explainer on Medium on Wednesday morning that states "it has become obvious that this is the time for change" and reminds lawmakers that VA can't fix the problem without their help.
Gibson said he worries that with the short legislative schedule this summer and impending change of presidential administrations next year, the momentum built within the veterans community for change could easily be lost.
"Today, we have appeals that have been iterating for 25 years, that have been decided 25 or 30 different times over that process," Gibson said. "That's not right. It's not right for veterans and it's not right for taxpayers."
Earlier this week, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said that appeals reform will be included in the pending omnibus, but warned it might not be the comprehensive plan floated by VA officials in recent months.
The omnibus already is expected to include sweeping new changes to hiring and firing rules for VA employees, changes to the department's outside care programs, caregiver provisions and several dozen other pieces of veterans legislation.
Isakson said he is committed to helping overhaul the process this year — either through the omnibus or in separate legislation — but conceded that passing any comprehensive legislation after June 1 will be difficult, given the shift in attention to the fall elections.
Both Gibson and Isakson said one point of difficulty now is the cost of the proposed reforms. The Congressional Budget Office is expected to put a price tag on the ideas in coming days.
Gibson said he does not expect the costs of the changes to be overwhelming, given that most of the changes deal with placing tighter timelines on new case submissions and decision deadlines. But clearing out the current caseload will require more staff and resources, which means more money.
The White House has support from veterans advocates for the change, and Gibson said congressional staffers have been generally supportive of the plans thus far. Crafting the new guidelines has been a speedy process for department officials, who consulted with outside groups in recent months to create a more customer service-centered proposal.
Now the question is whether that support can translate into congressional action.
"We're determined to get this done," Gibson said. "We understand the process is broken. The challenge we have now is that our window is closing."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.