Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Witness Testimony of Arnold Russo, Veterans Benefits Administration, Director, Appeals Management Center, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Chairman Hall and Members of the Subcommittee.
Thank you for providing me the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the operations of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Appeals Management Center (AMC).
My statement today will address the remand process and the current AMC workload.
Appeals Management Center
The AMC was created in July 2003, consolidating the responsibility for managing remands from the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA) into a single operation where resources and expertise could be concentrated.
The mission of the AMC is to process remands timely and consistently. The AMC has complete authority to develop remands, reach decisions based on additional evidence gathered, and authorize the payment of benefits. If the AMC is unable to grant an appeal in full, the appeal is re-certified to BVA for continuation of the appellate process.
Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and BVA have worked closely together to address the root causes of remands. Our joint initiatives have focused on increased coordination of data collection, identification of trends, and training. These joint initiatives have proven to be very successful. The remand rate for FY 2005 was 43 percent. The current remand rate has improved dramatically to 34 percent.
We continue to work to identify the root causes of cases being remanded. There are many reasons why a case may be remanded by BVA for additional action that are beyond the control of the regional office that processed the case, such as a regulatory change or new precedent Court decision. While remands do not necessarily mean that a mistake was made in the processing of the case, we have focused our attention on analyzing those cases where development by the regional office was deficient and the remand could have been avoided.
Deficiencies are tracked nationally and by regional office and are targeted for development of additional guidance and/or increased training. Additionally, VBA this year added “avoidable remand rate” to the performance standards for all regional office directors. Through the end of August 2007, the FY 2007 national avoidable remand rate is under 18 percent, or a six percent improvement over last year.
To improve the timeliness of remand processing at the AMC, we have added a technical expert to every team to ensure that any information requested in the remand order was asked for and obtained, or a satisfactory explanation as to why the evidence could not be obtained included in the claims folder. This procedure provides an internal check on our development practices, and ensures consistency throughout the AMC.
The AMC has received assistance in remand processing from three of VBA’s resource centers. This allowed the AMC to establish a workflow that develops cases in a timely, efficient, and accurate manner. During FY 2003, regional offices were taking an average of 700 days to complete a remand. In FY 2005, average processing time for a remand completed at the AMC was 400 days. Currently, the AMC is averaging 343 days to process a remand. We continue to strive for further improvement. A strategic goal of 230 days to complete a remand has been established. This goal represents the minimum time needed to complete a remand given the notification, evidence collection, and follow-up requirements of the Veterans Claims Assistance Act and other legal requirements.
Steady improvement also continues as a result of the AMC’s effective working relationships with many of the veterans service organizations (VSOs). The VSOs work directly with our decision makers and help reduce administrative waiting time. When the VSOs are satisfied that a case is ready to be certified back to BVA, they complete the necessary forms and assist us in getting the case back to the BVA for a final determination.
The AMC’s progress in improving the quality of remand processing is demonstrated by the reduction in the number of cases remanded a second time. Two years ago, approximately 35 percent of the cases certified to BVA by the AMC were again remanded to the AMC. Today, approximately 85 percent of the cases certified to BVA by the AMC are accepted and finalized.
The AMC remand inventory at the end of FY 2006 was 14,650. Currently, the inventory is 18,300. One of the reasons for the increased inventory is the increase in the number of remands received during the fiscal year. Last year the AMC received 15,008 remands, an average of 1,250 per month. Even with the reduced remand rate, we are this year receiving an average of 1,417 remands per month. In addition, because of VBA’s increased disability claims workload, the three resource centers that had been assisting the AMC were redirected to supporting regional offices with high workload inventories.
To address the remand workload, the AMC was authorized to increase its staffing level from 87 employees to 105 employees. These new employees have gone through centralized training and are now receiving training at the AMC. Many of our new hires will attain journey-level status toward the end of FY 2008 and will then be able to significantly contribute to remand production. The long-term impact of our hiring will be that the AMC will become self-sufficient, and will continue to improve both the timeliness and accuracy of remand processing.
In summary, VBA has made a concentrated effort to improve appellate processing and focus on the remand workload by establishing a centralized processing center that establishes a core expertise in this area. The AMC is dedicated to properly and accurately assembling any evidence needed, as directed by BVA, in order to expeditiously process the remands. We believe we are moving in the right direction, and continuing efforts will allow us to significantly improve the appeals process for veterans.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I will be happy to respond to any questions that you or other members of the Subcommittee might have.