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Senators Introduce Legislation to Overhaul Veterans Appeals Process

[WASHINGTON, DC] – Today, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jon Tester (D-MT), Angus King (I-ME), Tom Udall (D-NM), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-PA), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced legislation to reform the appeals process for veterans benefits. Because of redundancies and inefficiencies in the current process, most veterans wait years for a decision on their appeals. The Department of Veterans Affairs Appeals Modernization Act of 2016 would replace the current appeals process – which today stands at over 450,000 appeals awaiting a decision – with one that is simple, fair, and transparent.

“The current appeals process for veterans benefits is a quagmire that no longer serves veterans and their families. Without reform, thousands of our nation’s veterans will continue to languish for years without receiving a fair and just consideration of their appeal, and denied access to the benefits they need and deserve,” Blumenthal said. “Today, I am proud to introduce legislation that is the product of true collaboration between all stakeholders – with this kind of rare consensus, I am confident that we can send a clean appeals reform bill to the President’s desk this year.”

“Veterans are waiting in limbo too long for the benefits that they earned,” Tester said.  “This bipartisan bill was built through collaboration and gives veterans different options to best fit their needs.  I am confident this reform will streamline the disability appeals process, protect veterans due process, and save taxpayers money.”

“A disabled veteran deserves more than a place on a waiting list or getting caught up in a VA backlog. But, too often, Maine veterans are paying the price for bureaucratic failures,” King said. “Veterans deserve a full, fair, and timely review of their appeals and this legislation will help accomplish that.”

Blumenthal, Tester, and King discussed the urgent need for appeals reform at a press conference today hosted by the American Legion and other Veterans Service Organizations.

“The VA Appeals Modernization Act will streamline the process for veterans and make it easier for the VA to address the backlog of pending appeals,” said Udall. “The current process is complex and ineffective, leaving far too many veterans in New Mexico waiting years for appeals decisions. This bill makes much-needed updates, and as a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, I'll continue working to ensure we uphold our promise to provide our veterans with the benefits and care they have earned.”

“It’s simply unacceptable that our veterans are put through such an inefficient and lengthy appeals process,” said Baldwin. “This VA reform will update this outdated system to help ensure that our veterans can receive a timely response so they are able to get the fair treatment that they have earned and deserve.”

“Five years is too long for these men and women who have served our country to wait for a decision,” Casey said. “We must streamline this complex and outdated process to help ensure that Veterans get the care they deserve-- having already sacrificed so much for us.”

“It is imperative that we fix this broken appeals system that leaves our veterans waiting years to receive their appeals decision from the VA,” Manchin said. “That is why I am proud to co-sponsor the Department of Veterans Affairs Appeals Modernization Act of 2016.  This bill shows that when Congress, the Department of Veterans Affair, and Veteran Service Organizations work together, we can reach our common goal to improve the lives of our deserving veterans.  I look forward to getting this bill passed into law.” 

“I’m proud to be part of the effort to modernize the Department of Veterans Affairs appeals process, a reform that is extremely important to veterans in Vermont and across the nation,” Leahy said. “This bill is the product of the experience and recommendations of veterans, to revolutionize the appeals process and to more quickly get to veterans the benefits they need and were promised.  Improvements that make a difference in veterans’ experience with the VA health system deserve to be and must be a high priority for Congress.”

“Our country makes a promise to care for the men and women who serve, but far too often, I hear from veterans in Washington state that the benefits and care they earned have been caught up in bureaucracy outside their control,” said Murray. “This is a disservice to those who sacrificed so much on our behalf. I’m proud to stand with my colleagues as we work to simplify the system so it works better for our veterans.”

The legislation introduced today would give veterans clear options after receiving an initial decision by consolidating the current appeals process into three distinct tracks:

  • Local Higher Level Review:  This lane would provide the opportunity for a quick resolution of the claim by a higher-level adjudicator at the VA Regional Office. This lane would be a good option for veterans who are confident they have all the evidence necessary to win their claim.
  • New Evidence: This lane would be for submitting new evidence at the VA Regional Office. This lane would serve as a good option for veterans who believe that they can succeed on their claim by providing additional evidence.
  • Board Review: In this last lane, intermediate steps currently required by statute to receive Board review would be eliminated. Furthermore, hearing and non-hearing options at the Board would be handled on separate dockets so these distinctly different types of work can be better managed. 

In May, Blumenthal called for a “complete overhaul” of the current appeals process for veterans benefits at a hearing to consider legislation to improve the VA health and benefits system.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Appeals Modernization Act of 2016 is supported by the Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS, the Military Officers Association of America, the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers, and the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs.

Garry Augustine, Washington Executive Director, Disabled Veterans of America:

  • DAV is pleased to offer our full support for Senator Blumenthal’s Department of Veterans Affairs Appeals Modernization Act of 2016. The appeals backlog is now over 450,000 and some veterans will wait years before their appeals are resolved under the current system. These delays are inexcusable. The proposed legislation is the result of collaboration between veterans groups, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Congress, and yields claims and appeals reform that our nation’s injured and ill veterans deserve. The window for action is closing rapidly, and we need bipartisan cooperation to ensure passage of this legislation in both chambers for it to be signed into law by the President before the end of this Congress.

Lieutenant General Dana Atkins, USAF (Ret.), President, Military Officers Association of America:

  • MOAA has long urged improvements to VA’s antiquated system of processing and deciding Veterans’ disability claims, which causes unacceptable delays in veterans obtaining their earned benefits.  Senator Blumenthal’s bill will be a large step in the right direction and will set the path for future improvements for veterans.  We are grateful for his leadership in bringing together all stakeholders in support of this initiative.

Amy Webb, Legislative Policy Advisor, AMVETS National Headquarters:

  • AMVETS fully supports this critically important legislation, and believes that remedies need to be put in place so the more than 440,000 veterans currently in the appeals process are granted a swift solution. We look forward to assisting in its passage.

Sherman Gillums Jr., Executive Director, Paralyzed Veterans of America

  • "This legislation is the product of ongoing discussions and strong collaborative effort between VA and stakeholders, all representing a good first step toward reforming the veterans claims and appeals process. More will be learned along the way, and Paralyzed Veterans of America will continue to engage VA and Congress to ensure the veterans, dependents, and survivors in search of justice—the most important attributes of this reform—experience a system that preserves their interests and provides for the fairest adjudication of their appeals possible, while reducing the appeals backlog during this transformation."  

Charles E. Schmidt, National Commander, The American Legion:

  • “Modernizing VA's archaic appeals process is of the utmost priority. Over the past year, The American Legion has engaged in discussions with VA leadership, VSO's, and private attorneys to improve the claims and appeals process,” said The American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt. “We expect both parties to work together responsibly to pass legislation which includes a simple and fair appeals process that provides veterans and their families their earned benefits in a timely manner.”