Opening Remarks As Prepared for Delivery:
The committee will come to order. Thank you all for being here today.
This is the second hearing on appeals reform in the last six months—which underscores the importance of this issue to this committee.
After hearing horror stories of veterans who had been waiting five, six years—or even longer—for a final decision on their claims, The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 gave veterans hope that a modern appeals system could improve appeals processing.
Congress’ work on appeals did not end with the passage of the law.
We will hold as many hearings as we need to ensure that VA effectively implements the law.
VA is telling us that the law will go into effect in February 2019, less than seven months from now. But between now and February, VA has a lot of work to do.
The department has to update its IT systems, issue regulations, create forms, train employees and allocate staff appropriately. To help us monitor VA’s progress on appeals reform, the AMA requires the Department to submit reports every 90 days.
I was very disappointed that the first report, which was submitted last November, lacked many details because it seemed that VA had not yet focused on all the steps it needed to take to implement the AMA
However, the next two reports, which were submitted in February and May, were better and contained much-needed details.
This showed me that VA is beginning to think through all the steps it will need to effectively overhaul the current appeals process—including its IT systems – which is one the most important components of the new appeals system.
Needless to say, appeals reform can’t go into effect unless the department’s computer programs are able to manage appeals in the new system.
During the January hearing, Mr. McLenachen testified that about 75% of the IT functionality will be delivered by August. Last Thursday, VA informed my staff that only 35% of the core functions will actually be complete by next month, with the remaining core functions delivered in December.
VA has assured my staff that executing this plan remains a first priority for VBA and OI&T technology resources.
During the July 18th Economic Opportunity Subcommittee hearing, VA testified that OI&T is working 24/7 on updating the IT systems for the Forever GI Bill. I would appreciate some clarification on how OI&T intends to balance both of these top priorities to ensure that both are timely accomplished.
I am concerned about whether the appeals software will be ready in time and whether VA will have a contingency plan if it is not. I also expect to get an update on the status of the new regulations that VA will need to begin handling appeals in the new system.
Publishing new federal regulations is a long process that can sometimes take years. My understanding is that the regulations are supposed to be published this morning. Frankly, the department has its work cut out to finalize the regulations and be completely ready for the new system by February 2019.
It is also important that VA understand that this committee not only expects the department to successfully roll out the new appeals system, but to also reduce the current appeals backlog.
Right now, VA has a backlog of almost 430,000 pending appeals —with many veterans waiting six years or longer just for a final decision on their claim for benefits. That is unacceptable.
Veterans have a right to get a correct decision on their claims in the first place,but if they disagree with a decision, they should have their appeals decided accurately and within a reasonable amount of time.
VA had hoped that the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program, or RAMP, which allows veterans who have pending appeals to transfer to the new system, would significantly reduce the number of legacy appeals.
However, it doesn’t look like RAMP will make much of a dent in the appeals backlog since only 13% of eligible veterans have chosen to transfer to RAMP.
One of my biggest concerns is how VA will resolve the appeals backlog while putting the new law into practice with the current leadership vacuum at the department. Just last night, the Senate confirmed Secretary Wilkie’s nomination, but right now, the department still does not have a permanent Deputy Secretary or Chief Information Officer.
Although I trust the people at this table are doing the best they can, right now, there is no one single person who has the responsibility for overseeing appeals reform in both VBA and the Board.
VA needs to ensure that both VBA and the Board are talking to each other—particularly with respect to developing integrated IT systems that will allow employees to better communicate with each other.
I’m looking forward to an open and productive discussion to ensure that when the law is fully implemented, VA will have developed a process that provides veterans with the accurate and timely decisions on their claims that they deserve.
Again, I want to thank all the witnesses for being here today.