VA backlog of veteran claims for benefits and services made worse by large number of appeals

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

There are 72,000 hearings for veteran claims now pending before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, an official for a federal watchdog agency told House lawmakers on Wednesday.

The large caseload is driven by repeat cases sent back to the appeals board after a higher court determined the board’s findings were inadequate or incomplete, said Elizabeth Curda, the director of Education, Workforce and Income Security at the Government Accountability Office.

“The board isn’t dealing with an appeal once but often multiple times,” she told members of a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee subpanel examining the timeliness and effectiveness of decision-making by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

The subpanel on disability assistance and memorial affairs sought answers from Curda — along with Department of Veterans Affairs officials and veterans advocates — about reasons for the backlog of claims.

Repeat cases represent a significant part of that workload, Curda said.

“The board faces large workloads and time pressures — and these and other factors require a robust quality-assurance process,” she said.

Curda discussed findings from a new GAO audit showing more than 80% of veteran cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims from fiscal 2019-2022 were “partially or fully remanded” for further development and review.

A remanded case is returned to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals for a new decision.

Veterans can choose to take their claim to the appeals board, when the VA denies a claim for benefits or services. A board decision can be challenged by taking it to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

The Board of Veterans’ Appeals heard 11,000 fewer cases in fiscal 2023 compared to the previous year but has a caseload of 72,000 hearings.

The quality of decisions could be impacted over pressure to increase speed and production, Curda told lawmakers. The appeals board also might refuse to hear a case that is incomplete and requires more evidence from the regional VA office adding to the backlog.

Rep. Morgan Luttrell, R-Texas, chairman the House subpanel, said the board sent back about 6,000 cases in fiscal 2022 because a VA employee did not properly collect all necessary evidence.

“Can you imagine being a veteran who has waited for years for an answer to your claim and then are told that your case has gotten sent back to the beginning because of an employee didn’t fulfill their statutory duty to assist?” Luttrell asked.

But Kenneth Arnold, acting chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, said more than 90% of the board’s decisions each year are not appealed. He said the board renders about 100,000 decisions annually.

“We make mistakes, but not the type of mistakes that would normally deny veterans extra benefits,” he said.

Arnold argued most of the cases sent back to the appeals board are not “seen by a judge.”

He described the process before the court as functioning more as legal negotiations that result in settlements but still “require a board decision to be re-adjudicated with more explanation for why something could not be granted.”

Arnold said the VA plans to hold a summit in 2024 with all stakeholders to undertake a review of the veterans’ benefits system and ways to improve the process.

Under the Veterans Appeals and Modernization Act, enacted in 2017, veterans have more options to have claims heard before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. They can choose a hearing to provide new evidence or ask for a board review without a hearing to receive a second opinion or to submit new evidence.

According to the GAO report, almost all appealed cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims undergo mediation.

Mediation can result in agreement between the veteran and the VA Office of General Counsel or the case can be returned to the board for re-adjudication.

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