WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs launched a new system Tuesday that promises faster decisions for veterans who are trying to obtain VA disability compensation and other benefits – a process that historically has taken years to navigate.

With a short ceremony at VA headquarters in Washington, the agency finalized the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act. The law, approved by Congress in 2017, created multiple avenues for veterans who want to contest their claims for benefits.

Under the old system, veterans waited an average of three to seven years to reconcile their appeals. The new one could get final decisions to veterans in as little as 125 days, VA officials vowed.

“We are making VA a 21st century health care administration, and now, today, we have the fulfillment of Appeals Modernization Act on time for you, for veterans,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said at the launch event.

Wilkie called the moment “historic,” and Cheryl Mason, chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, said the new process was “the biggest change to appeals in for decades.”

The new process gives veterans three options for appealing a decision on their claim:

Submit extra evidence for another review. Receive a review from a higher-level adjudicator without submitting extra evidence. Go directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals for a full hearing.David McLenachen, director of the VA’s appeals management office, said the VA will track the amount of time it takes veterans to get through each option. The agency will make that information public to help veterans decide which route to take, he said.

If veterans disagree with their decisions from one path, they have one year to select another avenue and appeal again.

Though the law changes how veterans appeal, it doesn’t change the system the VA uses to determine whether veterans are eligible for benefits.

“Our employees are not changing the way they determine whether they’re entitled to disability compensation,” McLenachen said. “What is changing is the process of how you get a review of that decision.”

With the new process, VA officials have the goal of cutting down the backlog of appeals, which stands at 402,000 cases. In 2013, the number of backlogged claims hit a peak of 611,000.

The agency hired 605 new employees in the past four months to help with claims.

The Appeals Modernization Act requires the VA to submit quarterly reports to Congress about the new process for the next seven years.

“This law is a great example of what is possible when we put partisanship aside and work together toward a shared goal,” said Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., who introduced the Appeals Modernization Act. “I’ll continue to perform my oversight role in Congress to ensure that the VA serves our veterans and implements this law effectively.”

Lawmakers are also overseeing the implementation of several other major changes at the VA.

Last year, the VA missed a deadline to implement part of the Forever GI Bill – an expansion of veterans’ education benefits Congress approved in 2017. When the agency went to make the necessary changes, they faced critical information technology errors that resulted in thousands of veterans receiving late payments. The total cost of the failures to veterans and taxpayers is not yet known.

Congress is also overseeing a multibillion-dollar project to overhaul the VA’s electronic health record, as well as a sweeping change to how the agency uses private doctors. The VA Mission Act, which aims to expand veterans’ care into the private sector, is scheduled to take effect in June. Lawmakers have recently criticized the VA for its lack of transparency about the measure. 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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