WASHINGTON — House lawmakers have finalized sweeping reforms to how veterans disability appeals claims are handled, potentially trimming years off the process once the changes are put in place.
The bill is the third major piece of veterans legislation in the last month sent to President Donald Trump to become law. On Saturday, he signed legislation funding the Veterans Affairs Choice program into early 2018. He’s expected to do the same in coming days with legislation expanding eligibility for post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
The appeals reform measure was passed by the Senate on its last day of work before summer recess, and quietly finalized by the House during a pro forma Friday.
In a statement, American Legion National Commander Charles Schmidt called the move a chance to “enhance veterans’ rights, modernize and expedite the appeals process, and ultimately reduce costs through greater efficiency.”
The Legion and other veterans groups have been working with VA officials on the reform package for years, as the number of backlogged claims in the system has steadily increased.
The number of pending appeals cases has grown by almost 100,000 cases over the last two years, topping 470,000 earlier this summer. The average wait time for an appeal on a veterans disability claim is more than five years.
VA officials have blamed the problem on the current rules surrounding the appeals process, which allow veterans to submit new medical information at any time. The idea was to protect veterans interests by ensuring reviewers have the most current information, but the real effect has been minor updates essentially restarting the appeals process again and again.
The new changes create multiple 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.
The measure also includes simplified notification processes, better oversight of case management, and more collaboration with outside groups on streamlining the process.
VA officials have said they are hopeful the new changes will significantly reduce the backlog and average wait time, but the fixes won’t go into effect immediately. Implementing the changes will likely take about 18 months from when Trump signs the measure.
Still, lawmakers hailed the move as a significant step ahead of veterans frustrated with bureaucracy and delays at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“With the passage of this bill, our nation will finally modernize a snarled system that’s only had one major update since it was first developed in 1933,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who has championed the issue in recent years. “Together with the VA, veterans service organizations, and other lawmakers, we were able to find a bipartisan compromise to ensure that veterans … receive the benefits they so bravely earned in a timely fashion.”
The White House has not announced a timeline for signing the bill. On Saturday, at the Choice bill signing ceremony, Trump said that “our great veterans deserve only the best, and that’s exactly what they’re getting” in his administration.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.