Wednesday, May 27, 2009

House Subcommittee Reviews Appellate Process for Veterans

Washington, D.C. – On Thursday, May 14, 2009, the House Veterans’ Affairs Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee, led by Chairman John Hall (D-NY), conducted a hearing to continue its oversight of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA), the Appeals Management Center (AMC), and the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC). The hearing focused on the efficiency and effectiveness of the agencies tasked with handling appeals filed by veterans pertaining to claims for benefits initiated at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

“The process a veteran goes through when filing an appeal is a never ending story that this Subcommittee has heard many times before,” said Chairman Hall. “A new claim is more like a short story. Upon submission, it can be developed and rated in about six months. However, if a veteran disagrees with the VA decision and files an appeal, then it becomes an epic tale that can go on for years or even decades. Our goal today is to learn more about the causes of delays in order to improve the administrative and judicial appeals processes to more efficiently serve veterans.”

At the hearing, Members heard the frustrations that veterans and survivors encounter waiting months and years on an appeal decision. Veterans who are denied or have benefits delayed as a result often face socioeconomic hardships, lack access to medical care, and miss opportunities to take advantage of other benefits that would come with service connection, such as vocational rehabilitation, life insurance or housing allowances. Veterans also find traveling to Washington, DC or even a Regional Office (RO) for a personal hearing with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to be cost prohibitive and travel boards often are difficult to schedule.

Witnesses offered testimony detailing the complex appellate process, which involves multiple layers and jurisdictions, lengthy waiting times, and stressful and confusing choices for veterans and their families. Specifically, witnesses discussed the longstanding delay in forwarding appeals to the BVA from VA regional offices, the high error rate at the BVA with no accompanying remedial action, and the misapplication of the clearly erroneous standard by the CAVC. In fiscal year 2008, it took an average of 563 days for the BVA to process an appeal, 567 days for the AMC and 446 days for the CAVC. Both the BVA and the CAVC have high remands rates, around 37% and 70% respectively (sending the appeal back to the originating agency/entity usually for further procedural development without making a decision), a process many veterans and their advocates have dubbed the “Hamster Wheel”. Recommendations to eliminate this phenomenon included, dissolving the Appeals Management Center, changing VA policy that requires claims be returned to the RO if a veteran submits additional evidence after requesting the claim be sent to BVA, reducing the appellate period from one year to six months, and addressing the inefficiency of federal courts not having authority to certify a veteran’s lawsuit as a class action.

Chairman Hall summarized the hearing and said, “I am committed to working to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the appellate processes that produce better outcomes than the current maze of appeals, remands, re-remands, and undue delays to the benefit of our veterans, their families, and survivors. I look forward to working with all of the stakeholders as there remains much work to be done.”

“It is clear that VA needs to reform the claims processing system by greatly improving the accuracy and quality of its decisions,” said Bob Filner, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “The VA continues to see the number of pending cases and appeals rise. This trend is expected to continue due to the current conflicts. The VA, the BVA, and the CAVC must work cooperatively to address lengthy delays and ensure veterans get the timely justice that they deserve and Congress envisions.”


Panel 1

· Judge Bruce E. Kasold, U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims

Panel 2

· William Angulo Preston, Acting President, American Federation of Government Employees Local 17, Associate Counsel, Board of Veterans Appeals

· Kerry Baker, Assistant National Legislative Director, Disabled American Veterans

· Barton F. Stichman, Joint Executive Director, National Veterans Legal Services Program

· Richard Paul Cohen, Executive Director, National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates

Panel 3

· The Honorable James P. Terry, Chairman, Board of Veterans' Appeals, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

· Ronald S. Burke, Director, Appeals Management Center, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Prepared testimony for the hearing and a link to the webcast from the hearing is available on the internet at this link:


The Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs held a series of oversight hearings in the 110th Congress focused on the disability claims processing system and the appellate process. You can access statements and transcripts on the Committee website:

· February 26, 2008: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Schedule for Rating Disabilities

· February 14, 2008: Examining the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Claims Processing System

· January 29, 2008: The Use of Artificial Intelligence to Improve the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Claims Processing System

· September 25, 2007: Board of Veterans’ Appeals Adjudication Process and the Appeals Management Center

· May 22, 2007: The Challenges Facing the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims

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