Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin visits Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland on April 27, 2017.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin visits Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland on April 27, 2017. (Megan Garcia/Walter Reed)

WASHINGTON — The Senate unanimously passed legislation Tuesday evening to reform the process veterans use to appeal claims for benefits – a system that now leaves veterans waiting years to receive earned disability compensation and health care.

The legislation creates three ways for veterans to appeal their claims for benefits. The bill’s sponsors describe it as an overhaul of a decades-old system that now takes an average of six years when a veteran is forced to appeal a claim with the Board of Veterans' Appeals.

“This bipartisan bill will cut government red tape and give the VA the flexibility and resources to process claims in a faster and more accurate way,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a prepared statement. Tester and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., leaders of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, sponsored the bill, and 30 senators signed on as cosponsors.

The House passed the bill, HR 2288, on May 23. The amended version that passed the Senate on Tuesday must return to the House for final approval before it’s sent to President Donald Trump to sign into law. House lawmakers left Washington on Friday for a monthlong recess.

If the reforms are implemented, veterans could appeal their claims directly with the Board of Veterans’ Appeals or request a higher-level VA adjudicator to decide the claim. They could also appeal -- with new information -- to the same adjudicator who denied their claim. The bill also requires the VA to better notify veterans about the status of their appeals.

VA leaders have said it would take 18 months to establish the new system after the bill is passed.

VA Secretary David Shulkin has listed appeals reform as one of his top priorities since his Senate confirmation hearing in February. He’s repeatedly called on Congress to pass the legislation.

As of Saturday, the VA had more than 350,000 pending claims for benefits, and another 87,000 backlogged, meaning they’ve been awaiting a decision for longer than 125 days.

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 the VA.

Tester called the current process for appealing claims “complex, inefficient and confusing.”

“For too long our veterans and their families have faced unacceptable delays,” Isakson said in a statement.

The Senate vote comes as the chamber finishes up work before leaving for a recess in mid-August. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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