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Chairman Roe Opening Statement: Is VA Ready for Full Implementation of Appeals Reform?

Washington, D.C. - Today, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, chaired by Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tenn.), held a hearing on whether the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is ready for the full implementation of appeals reform.

Below are Chairman Roe’s remarks: 

Opening Remarks As Prepared for Delivery:

Good morning.

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

This is the final hearing we will hold this session on the implementation of The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, also called the AMA.

Let me start by thanking Acting Deputy Secretary Byrne for being here today.

As you know, The AMA requires the Secretary to certify in January 2019 that the Department has the resources, personnel, procedures, and information technology to carry out the new appeals system, while timely addressing both new and legacy appeals

The AMA also provides the Secretary with the authority to delay the effective date of the law if VA is not fully prepared to implement appeals reform.

Since the Secretary is responsible for certifying that the Department is ready, I believe it is important for Congress and the Veteran Community to hear from Senior Leadership on the status of the implementation.

I understand that Ms. Mason has been delegated the authority to oversee the implementation but your presence here today, Mr. Byrne,  demonstrates the Secretary’s commitment to ensuring this program is implemented correctly.

Today, I want to talk about VA’s progress updating its IT systems, publishing final implementing regulations and forms, completing training for employees, and appropriately allocating staff and resources, which all must be completed within the next two months.

I was encouraged by the recent August and November updates to VA’s comprehensive plan, which showed the steps VA is taking to effectively overhaul the current appeals process.

However, I am uncertain that all the components needed for appeals reform will be completed on time.

While we are all excited for appeals reform to roll-out, it is also important for VA to understand that this Committee does not wish for VA to push out the new appeals system in February if it’s not truly ready.

That’s one lesson we all have learned from the Forever GI bill implementation. 

One of my main concerns is whether VA’s IT systems will be fully functional by February 2019.

VA needs robust IT systems that are capable of handling appeals under the AMA. 

During the July appeals hearing, Under Secretary for Benefits Dr. Lawrence testified that about 100 percent of the IT functionality will be delivered by this month – and I would like to know if that timeline remains accurate.

If VA’s appeals IT systems will not be ready in time, I want to hear what VA’s contingency plan is.

Turning to regulations, according to the November 2018 appeals report, VA said it planned to send OMB the final regulations for approval by November 13, 2018.

I would also like to know whether this has taken place. 

Additionally, I’m  looking forward to an update from VA about how it intends to effectively balance appeals under the new system and the legacy inventory.

Right now, VA has almost 400,000 appeals pending.

VA anticipated that the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program, or RAMP, which allows veterans who have pending appeals to transfer to the new system, would help reduce the backlog. 

However, RAMP has only had a 16 percent take rate from the legacy inventory.

I’d like to hear today how long it will take VBA and the Board to decide all remaining legacy appeals – whether it could be 1 year, 5 years, or 10 years.

Despite RAMP’s low opt-in rate, I am curious about how the Department has used the feedback it has received from RAMP to test assumptions and make adjustments to the new appeals system accordingly.

I want to make sure that VA is using RAMP to inform the new system, and not as a means to disguise the true size of the appeals backlog. 

I’d also like to hear about the training provided to employees.

My staff visited the Denver Region Office in October, and the employees shared that VA’s guidance on the new systems was confusing and that they needed additional training to understand the new procedures.

I’m hoping to have a productive discussion today to ensure that when the law is fully implemented, all veterans will receive correct and timely decisions.

Again, I want to thank the witnesses for being here today to discuss this very important matter.

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