U.S. Senators Keep Working To Fix Backlog of VA Appeals
By MARY KAUFFMAN
February 03, 2016
“It is astonishing to me that an average veteran waits nearly 1,000 days – or almost three years – for the VA to resolve an appeal of one their benefit decisions. Proud veterans across the U.S. – including more than 77,000 in Alaska – should not have to endure these absurd, multi-year wait times just to see their cases resolved. I am hopeful that – with the support of my colleagues – this bill will create a less-bureaucratic appeals express lane through which the VA can resolve its growing backlog of appeals quickly and favorably for all of our nation’s veterans,” said U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK).
U.S. Senators Sullivan, Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA), Dean Heller (R-NV), and Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced S. 2473, also known as The Express Appeals Act. U.S. Representative Beto O'Rourke (El Paso, Texas) authored The Express Appeals Act in the House, H.R. 800.
The Express Appeals Act would establish a new channel whereby veterans, upon receiving a decision on an original claim by the VA, would have the option to file an express appeal with the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA), in lieu of the traditional appeals process.
The express appeals process would consolidate the traditional process aimed at reducing veterans’ wait times. First, the appeals pilot program would omit the remand process, in which the BVA sends a veteran’s appeal back to the VBA for additional evidence development, saving the veteran an average of 545 days.
Additionally, entrance into this program would be completely voluntary and a veteran would be able to exit the express appeals process at any time and re-enter the traditional pipeline at the end of the line with no adverse consequences.
The Veterans Benefits Administration has 56 regional offices. The VBA reports it currently serves about 4 million Veterans who receive compensation and pension benefits. In the past four years alone, VBA reports it has added more than 940,000 Veterans to the VBA compensation rolls, more than the active duty Army and Navy combined. In fiscal year 2012, VBA reported delivering $54 billion in compensation and pension benefits. As of January 30, 2016, the VBA reports 352.666 pending claims.
According to information provided on the Veterans Benefits Administration's website, in "2010, VA Secretary Shinseki made a decision that any claim in the inventory that was older than 125 days would be considered part of the backlog of claims. VBA built the Transformation Plan around their goal that in 2015 the backlog would be eliminated and all claims would be processed in 125 days at 98 percent accuracy."
The backlog of pending disability compensation claims peaked at over 611,000 in March 2013 and the Veterans Benefits Administration reported that backlog had been reduced by 44% in April 2014 with wait days decreasing by 119 days.
S. 2473 has been referred to the United States Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, of which three of the bill’s four sponsors are members.
In October 2015, a new Alaska Pilot Program was announced by Dr. Thomas Lynch, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health Clinical Operations, at a U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on pending health care and benefits legislation. Lynch said the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was creating this new pilot program in Alaska to address the failed implementation of the Veterans Choice Program in the state. The new Alaska Pilot Program would attempt to fix Alaska’s problem, in part, by putting the scheduling of appointments back into the hands of Alaskans.
The announcement of an Alaska VA pilot program followed a Veterans’ Affairs Committee field hearing held by Senator Sullivan in Alaska in August 2015.
According to Dr. Lynch, Phase One of this program – which involves a virtual presence in Alaska – is already in place and Phase Two, which involves additional employees and resources in the Alaska VA, was to be completed by mid-November 2015. A deadline that was not met.
In December 2015, Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) changed his tone and lambasted the Deputy Secretary and the Undersecretary for Health of the Department of Veterans Affairs on the lack of progress on the Alaska Pilot Program for the Veterans Choice Program.
“When are you going to fix the problem in Alaska like you committed to when you were there in August?” Senator Sullivan asked VA Undersecretary Dr. Shulkin in December at a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing. “On behalf on my veterans I'm pissed… By mid-November, it was all going to be done. It's not done.”
During the December 2015 hearing, the VA admitted that they had not met their mid-November deadline, despite agreeing to implement the second and final phase of Alaska’s Pilot Program by that time. According to the VA, no staff has been hired and they have yet to even create job descriptions.
Dr. Shulkin agreed that the program was taking longer than it should to implement.
“It is taking longer than you or I want and you're right to be impatient,” Dr. Shulkin told Senator Sullivan. “I know that the deputy secretary and I have spoken about this. He is committed to it, the secretary [of the VA] is committed to it…You have never deviated from this. We're not deviating from it…I don't want to be giving excuses. I only want to fix the problem in Alaska and we're going to stick at it.”
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