Isakson, Blumenthal Announce Bill to Modernize VA Appeals Process

Bipartisan, bicameral legislation overhauls veterans’ appeals process at Department of Veterans Affairs

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., today announced bipartisan, bicameral legislation -- the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 -- that will overhaul the current appeals process at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The VA’s current appeals process is in desperate need of updating, and nearly half a million veterans are in limbo because of the VA’s existing backlog. Between fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2017, the number of pending appeals increased from approximately 380,000 to 470,000 – a more than 20 percent increase.

“For too long our veterans and their families have faced unacceptable delays during the VA’s disability claims appeal process,” said Isakson. “This legislation, created with input from the VA and veterans groups, overhauls the current appeals process and puts in place a new system that is more transparent and allows veterans to choose the option that is right for them. I look forward to working with stakeholders and my colleagues to advance appeals reform legislation to ensure that veterans do not continue to experience long delays when seeking benefits from the VA.”

“By overhauling the VA appeals process, this bipartisan legislation would dramatically shorten the average wait time for an appeal from five years to 125 days,” said Blumenthal. “This streamlined process would provide veterans with timely, accurate answers on their appeals so they can access the benefits they need and deserve. I’m proud to introduce this critical bill with Senator Isakson, and I’ll continue fighting until the VA’s appeals process is worthy of the heroes it serves.”

The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 would create three separate paths for veterans to choose from when seeking redress from a decision by the Veterans Benefits Administration on their claims for VA benefits. It would also allow certain veterans already going through the appeals process to opt in to the new system. The bill would give the VA secretary the authority to test facets of the new system prior to full implementation and would also require the VA to provide a comprehensive plan for both implementing the new system and processing the existing appeals.

Under the new process, veterans dissatisfied with the initial decisions on their claims will be able to:

  • Seek a higher-level review by a regional office on the same evidence presented to the original claims processors;
  • File a supplemental claim with a regional office that would include the opportunity to submit additional evidence; or
  • Appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, resulting in a possible hearing and/or the opportunity to submit additional evidence.

Isakson, who is in Georgia today as he continues to recover from two recent back surgeries, plans to introduce the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 as early as Wednesday, May 3. A one-page summary of the legislation can be found here.

The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 is also co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Companion legislation was also introduced today in the U.S. House of Representatives by Reps. Mike Bost, R-Ill., and Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., chairman and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. Congressmen Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Tim Walz, D-Minn., chairman and ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, are original co-sponsors of the House bill.

"I am proud to introduce this long-overdue legislation to provide veterans with a streamlined process to have their appeals decided in a timely manner," said Bost. "As of March 1, 2017, 470,000 veterans are still waiting on a decision from VA. This is unacceptable, and I thank President Trump and Secretary Shulkin for making appeals reform a priority for this administration."

"When the brave men and women of our military return home from their service, they deserve to receive the benefits they were promised in a timely manner,” said Esty. “And yet in Connecticut and across the country, appeals claims are backing up. When a veteran asks my office for help appealing their claim, it is deeply frustrating to have to explain that the process could take more than five years. We have to do better. This legislation is a good, bipartisan step forward to cut down on these delays, attack the looming appeals backlog, and, most importantly, put our veterans first."

"I thank Subcommittee Chairman Bost and Ranking Member Esty for taking the lead on this important issue on behalf of the House, and I appreciate Chairman Isakson leading the way in the Senate," said Roe. "There's no question VA's current appeals process is broken. This new system would help VA move through the backlog of appeals so veterans waiting on their disability decision can have peace of mind."

“When it comes to serving veterans, there is absolutely no room for partisanship; for that reason, I commend Chairman Bost and Ranking Member Esty for their bipartisan leadership in advancing this critical legislation to modernize VA’s claims processing capabilities,” said Walz. “Ensuring every veteran’s claim is processed in a timely and transparent manner has been one of our highest priorities on the Committee, and this commonsense legislation takes us one major step forward in accomplishing that goal.”

###

The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is chaired by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the 115th Congress. Isakson is a veteran himself – having served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-1972 – and has been a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs since he joined the Senate in 2005. Isakson’s home state of Georgia is home to more than a dozen military installations representing each branch of the military as well as more than 750,000 veterans.