Experts Expressed Skepticism of VA’s Plans for Appeals Modernization - While Some Concerns Remain, VA Has Improved RAMP.
On August 23rd, 2017, President Trump signed the Veterans’ Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act (“the Act”), a law which the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (“VA”) hopes will reduce the monstrous backlog of appeals.
While the Act does not go into effect until February of 2019, the VA submitted its implementation plan on November 23rd, 2017. After the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”), the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates (“NOVA”), the Veterans of Foreign Wars (“VFW”), and many other veterans’ affairs experts and veterans’ service organizations had a chance to review the VA’s proposal, a hearing was held by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (“the Committee”). The tone in the room was largely that of hope for the Act’s potential, but skepticism of the VA’s ability to realize that potential.
Veterans’ Affairs Experts Say Implementation Plan is Dangerously Vague
Throughout the hearing there was one key theme: the implementation plan is vague.
NOVA and the GAO both expressed concern that the VA had failed to establish how many employees it would need in each division to successfully implement the Act. Each organization also voiced its concerns about the need to update technology quickly if the transition is going to go smoothly. GAO further noted that the implementation plan included a disconcerting lack of milestones – indicating that there was not a clear vision of how things might change after the implementation.
This lack of certainty is frightening, particularly when it relates to an Act which could determine whether the 470,000 veterans who are trapped in the appeals process receive their disability benefits.
VA Modifies RAMP Program After Many Organizations Find Flaws
Another theme throughout the hearing was concern regarding the VA’s Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (“RAMP”).
RAMP is a program through which a veteran with a pending appeal can withdraw her or his appeal and transfer it into the new system.
However, the original version of RAMP was flawed. For example, participation was by invitation only. Further, it limited veterans to only two options: 1) The Higher-Level Review Lane, in which a higher-up VA official reviews the veteran’s case as it stands and decides whether to overturn the prior decision; or 2) The Supplemental Claim Lane, through which veterans can submit new evidence. Therefore, veterans were not allowed to appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (“the Board”) and, if their claim was denied by Higher-Level Review or the Supplemental Claim process, they were not allowed to appeal that decision to the Board until February of 2019. These flaws worried organizations such as VFW, which explained that it was hesitant to refer its clients to the RAMP because it: 1) knew that the RAMP would result in veterans, many of whom had already been waiting years to appeal, essentially giving up their place in line at the Board; and 2) was unclear about whether, in practice, the RAMP would expedite veterans’ claims.
Thankfully, VA has taken three positive steps towards improving RAMP.
First, as of April 1, 2018, all veterans with a pending appeal are invited to opt in to RAMP. A veteran's appeal is "pending" for purposes of RAMP if she or he is waiting for a decision in one of the following stages: 1) Notice of Disagreement; 2) Form 9; 3) "Certified to the Board but not yet activated for a Board decision;" or 4) "Remand from the Board to VBA."
Second, the Board will be open to RAMP participants starting in October of 2018, and those who appeal from within the RAMP system will be at the top of the Board's new dockets.
Third, veterans who participate in RAMP will have one-year from the date of their decision to appeal to another lane.
RAMP is Not Right for Everyone - How To Choose the Appeals Process That Works Best For You
At the Law Offices of Attorney Sean Kendall, we urge you to carefully consider your options before deciding how to move forward with your appeal. While the RAMP may be the right option for some, it can be detrimental for others. Therefore, it is important to speak with an experienced veterans' law attorney before making a decision.
When you are ready, send us a note or give us a call at (877)-629-1712. With decades of combined experience working with veterans, we can help you identify the best path so that you can win the benefits you are entitled to.
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