Blumenthal Presses VA Secretary to Streamline Disability Claims Appeals Process

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) pressed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald to overhaul and streamline the logjammed disability claims appeals process that has contributed to a backlog of 444,000 claims before the Board of Veterans Appeals. Because of redundancies and inefficiencies in the current process, most veterans wait years for a decision on their appeals.

“Let me begin with your chart, which shows a reduction in V.A. disability claims, but in a sense those claims now have caused an increase in the number of appeals, which demonstrates in a sense that you have reduced the numbers, but simply shifted the problem,” Blumenthal said to the Secretary. “That’s an oversimplistic way of putting it but as a lawyer in the federal courts, or state courts for that matter, if a backlog were cleared simply by moving that great mound of work to the appellate process where appeals languish for years and years and years, it would not be regarded as a success story. And so, the 440,000 appeals that currently are pending is in my view, unacceptable.”

Secretary McDonald responded: “That's exactly why it’s one of our breakthrough objectives. And as we’ve said, assuming we can work together on the legislation, we are planning to get 90 percent of appeals resolved within one year. And I think we can all sign up for that objective.”

Video of the Senator’s full exchange with Sec. McDonald is available here.

Senator Blumenthal is a cosponsor of S.1286, the Veterans Appeals Assistance Improvement Act of 2015, which would provide the Secretary with more flexibility to address the most unreasonably-delayed claims. The bill, which is one of a series of steps Sen. Blumenthal supports to enable a culture change at VA that puts veterans first, would provide better, more efficient pro-bono representation to veterans seeking appeals. VA’s appeals process can take several years to decide on a veteran’s request for review. However, many veterans are experiencing wait times in excess of 10 years.

Despite the prolonged delay, under current law, VA can only expedite adjudication of a claim if the veteran’s life is in danger or the case has previously been remanded. This bill would add a third option for expediting a claim, if it has been “unreasonably delayed.” The provision would also establish a rebuttable presumption that after eight years a claim has been unreasonably delayed. This provision will provide the Secretary, as well as veterans, with the flexibility to address the most egregiously-delayed claims.