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Chairman Roe Examines VA's Implementation of Appeals Reform

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Washington, January 30, 2018 | Tiffany Haverly (202-225-3527) | comments

Today, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, chaired by Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tenn.), held an oversight hearing to examine the Department of Veterans Affairs' implementation of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017.

Below are Chairman Roe's opening remarks from the hearing:

Opening Remarks As Prepared for Delivery

Good morning.

The Committee will come to order.  Thank you all for being here today.

Before we begin, I ask unanimous consent that a former Member of the Committee, Ms. Titus, be allowed to sit at the dias and ask questions.

This hearing will focus on VA’s implementation of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, or AMA, which substantially reforms VA’s appeals process.

This topic is important to each one of us on this panel – and in fact, every Member of this Committee is an original co-sponsor to the legislation.

We all agree that the success of this reform is critical because the current appeals process is failing veterans miserably.

Right now, VA has a backlog of more than 470,000 appeals —and many veterans will end up waiting at least six years just for the decision on their appeal.

Veterans – and their families – deserve better.

They deserve to have VA decide their appeals accurately and within a reasonable amount of time.

During the previous administration, then-Secretary McDonald brought VSOs and other veterans advocates together to develop a legislative proposal to address the appeals backlog. 

Secretary Shulkin continued to work with the VSOs to improve the original proposal.

This Committee took the current proposal and worked on a bipartisan basis to get it through the House and Senate and to the President’s desk.  

But passing the bill was only the first step.

We intend to continue to work closely with VA and the stakeholders to ensure that veterans who file an appeal receive an accurate decision in a more timely manner.

I know it won’t be easy.

The AMA makes significant changes to the current process, and VA faces challenges in implementing the law by the anticipated effective date.

But I am hopeful that the Department is up to this challenge because it was VA itself, that requested the law’s February 19, 2019 effective date.

To help ensure that VA’s implementation of reform uses sound planning practices, the law requires a high level of transparency from VA.

The first of these reports, the Comprehensive Plan, was intended to outline how VA expects to transition to the new system while, at the same time, addressing the backlog of pending appeals.

On November 23, 2017, VA submitted its Comprehensive Plan outlining its progress and its timeline for implementing the new law.

Unfortunately, VA’s initial report lacked many details.

GAO has also reviewed VA’s plan and I look forward to hearing the Comptroller General’s assessment.

In particular, I’m looking forward to GAO’s input on how VA can better implement the reform so that we can finally have an appeals process that works for our nation’s veterans.   

I’m also interested in learning whether there are additional efficiencies that VA can leverage to more effectively and timely process the backlog of legacy appeals.

VA’s current plan to reduce the existing backlog is to use the authority we gave it to test the new appeals system.

VA’s plan is called the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program, or RAMP.

Under RAMP, many veterans who have pending appeals are being given the option to withdraw their existing appeal and transfer to the new system.

I have several concerns about RAMP, including why the Board—which has more than 170,000 pending appeals—is not included in the program.

Another concern is the lack of veteran participation in RAMP.

VA has indicated that the data gathered from RAMP will help inform decisions for the implementation of the reform.

However, according to VA, only 3% of eligible veterans have chosen to participate in the program.

Unless more veterans participate in RAMP, it is hard to see how VA will collect enough data to develop an effective plan to successfully implement appeals reform.  

Realistically, VA is running out of time to address these issues if the Department hopes to implement the new system by February 2019. 

In light of the low participation in RAMP, I’m hopeful that VA will share with us some additional ideas for a data-driven approach to prepare for full implementation of the new appeals system.

I hope that we will be able to have a productive discussion on ways to assist veterans with legacy appeals and to ensure that the transition to the new system will be seamless.

Comptroller General Dodaro, I know that your team has been very involved in considering some of the challenges for implementation, and I’m looking forward to your expertise on this subject.

Everyone here wants the same thing: to develop an appeals process that will give veterans accurate and timely decisions on their claims. 

I now yield to Ranking Member Walz for any opening statement that he might have.

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