Veterans Affairs officials are still pushing for benefits appeals reform this year, even if Congress appears to have its sights focused elsewhere.
On Wednesday, during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, VA Secretary Bob McDonald warned that "our window of opportunity won't be open indefinitely" to deal with the appeals issue.
"We simply cannot serve veterans well unless we can come together and make big changes in the appeals process," he said. "It's a heavy lift."
Since January, McDonald and top department leaders have been pushing the issue as a priority before the change of administration next year. More than 440,000 veterans have appeals cases pending in the benefits system, a caseload that has risen steadily in recent years as the number of benefits claims has skyrocketed.
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.
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.
Last month, officials from the major veterans organizations wrote to key congressional lawmakers supporting the changes, calling the plan a chance to "achieve real progress for the men and women who served."
And last week, Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev. — ranking member of the House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance — introduced legislation mirroring that plan, calling it an overdue reform that lawmakers must act on immediately.
So far, Republicans in Congress have offered words of support for the idea but no action.
House Veterans' Affairs Committee leaders recently postponed a hearing on the issue, promising to deal with it in coming weeks. The comprehensive veterans omnibus legislation introduced in the Senate last week contains a pilot program to test an expedited appeals process, but not the broader reforms VA has requested.
Supporters say that's not enough, and worry that real changes to the system could take years if lawmakers can't act in coming months.
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said in recent weeks that the appeals proposal was too complicated to include fully in the omnibus measure, which does include massive changes to VA employee accountability, caregiver support and various health care issues.
But he also vowed that lawmakers will deal with the issue this year.
The congressional schedule appears to be working against that. The Senate is in session for only 42 more days before Congress breaks for its pre-election summer recess, and the House has only 32 days of work scheduled.
Lawmakers have both the omnibus and the chambers' separate VA appropriations bills on their schedule during that stretch, taking focus and time away from the appeals issue.
McDonald vowed to "continue to press in the weeks ahead" on the issue.
"This Congress with today's VA's leadership team can enable all these transformational changes and more for veterans," he said. "Then, we can look back on this year as the year we turned the corner for veterans."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.