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The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., is seen on a June evening in 2010.
The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., is seen on a June evening in 2010. (Stephen Hassay/U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON — The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday unanimously passed on voice vote a bill that aims to speed up the process of getting veterans their earned benefits – a task that now takes between three and six years on average if a veteran is forced to appeal a benefits claim that is denied.

The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, or S. 1024, would create three paths for veterans to appeal their claims, including the ability to take their appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals or request a higher-level Department of Veterans Affairs adjudicator to decide the case. It also requires the VA to improve how the agency notifies veterans about the status of their appeals. Some veterans have criticized the VA for going years without giving them an update.

“It requires veterans to get answers if they have not gotten appeals responded to. It forces the VA to submit to us and the [Government Accountability Office] a plan to modernize how they handle appeals,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the committee. “So it’s not just a prospective bill, but it covers those 470,000 people who have been waiting and languishing, one of them 25 years, to get an answer.”

The bill will now be sent to the full Senate, and it’s uncertain when it could be scheduled for a vote. The House passed similar legislation May 23.

VA Secretary David Shulkin first urged Congress to take action and fix the appeals process during his confirmation hearing in February. At the time – and since – he called it “broken.”

“We have no hopes without a modernization act being passed through Congress,” he told senators at his confirmation hearing. “It won’t get better without your help. We hope you and your colleagues will pass something this year.”

At the end of the congressional session last year, lawmakers settled on a veterans reform bill that included only pieces of what the VA and veterans groups were hoping to accomplish, and omitted measures to improve the appeals process. Former VA Secretary Bob McDonald, in his last weeks in the office, blamed partisanship for Congress’ lack of action on the issue.

During his “State of the VA” address at the White House on May 31, Shulkin called on senators again to overhaul the system.

“It takes about three years if you were to file today to get a decision, and it’s going to take Congress to help us fix that system,” he said. “We need our friends in the Senate to act on appeals legislation as soon as possible.”

The number of claims pending with the Veterans Benefits Administration was 370,000 as of June 24. Another nearly 92,500 claims were backlogged, meaning they had been awaiting a decision more than 125 days. The number has been cut from all-time highs of 884,000 pending claims and 611,000 backlogged claims in 2012 and 2013.

As the VA works through more pending and backlogged claims, the number of appeals is expected to increase. Approximately 12 percent of benefits decisions are appealed, according to a VA statement in May.

On Wednesday, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said it was also important to quickly confirm nominees to serve on the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. President Donald Trump nominated three judges to the court June 7. If veterans disagree with decisions from the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, they can pursue an appeal with the court.

The VA is also hiring for the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Shulkin exempted eight vacancies on the board from the hiring freeze imposed by Trump earlier this year.

“It’s really a one-two punch we need to be focused on,” Sullivan said. “The law, but also filling up the bench to move these appeals.”

Modernizing the appeals process is one of Shulkin’s 10 priorities for reforming the VA. He made strides in another of those priorities – holding VA employees accountable – when Trump signed a bill Friday giving Shulkin more disciplinary authority. The bill was the result of a bipartisan compromise in the Senate.

“We take our cues from the veterans, and the veterans see this as a huge problem,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate VA committee. “So to move this forward is critically important. Especially at this moment in time in the Senate, this committee works very well together, and hopefully we can continue that.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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