The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017

By Sabrina Rodrigues (JD ’18)

Approximately 470,000 veterans are waiting for appeals decisions on their disability ratings, which could take at least six years to get through, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Recent legislation has been passed by Congress and signed by President Trump to facilitate this appeals process for veterans. The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 was signed into law on August 23, 2017, and was designed to “streamline the lengthy process that veterans undergo when appealing their claims for disability benefits” with the Department of Veterans Affairs. By facilitating the appeals process for veterans, the Act aims to cut down on the notoriously lengthy timing of the process.

Normally, when a veteran files a claim for disability caused by their military service, they receive a decision that either grants or denies that claim from the VA. However, they may appeal this decision. The issue with this is that the VA appeals system is severely flawed as it currently stands. According to Representative Phil Roe, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the VA’s current appeal process is broken. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of appeals increased from about 380,000 to 470,000, an alarming 20% increase. This shows that the amount of appeals is extensive and out of control, thus in dire need of reform and change. The high number of pending appeals is especially problematic when we consider the individuals who are requesting the appeals: disabled veterans. Veterans who are disabled are in more of a need for a timelier appeals outcome than other veterans. Thus, this Act will, in theory, expedite the appeals process, and resolve these issues that have been backlogged for quite some time.

The Act provides a structure for the appeals process, by creating three possible avenues for appeals for veterans to choose from, depending on their specific situation. The first lane a veteran may choose is the Local Higher Level Review Lane, in which the adjudicator considers the same evidence from the decision that is being appealed, and the veteran waives a hearing. The second lane is the New Evidence Lane, in which the adjudicator considers new evidence submitted for review with a hearing. The third lane is the Board Lane, in which an appeal may be moved to the jurisdiction of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, and thus skip the intervening authorities within the VA. The Act provides a test period in which veterans who are involved in pending appeals may opt into the system. The Act allows for two dockets, one “specifically for an expedited review for veterans who waive the hearing and chance to submit new evidence.”

Veterans who have been disabled as a result of their service deserve a reformed and expedited appeals process, especially when their disabilities are taken into account. They bravely served this country, and at the very least, should not have to wait 5+ years for their appeals decision. If this Act serves the purposes it purports, then veterans with disabilities will no longer have to wait astronomical amounts of time for a decision.