On February 19, 2019, the VA announced the end of the VA RAMP program, moving entirely into the new veterans’ appeals law – the Appeals Modernization Act (“AMA”). Here’s hoping this attempt at VA appeals reform continues to eliminate the backlog and helps get veterans the benefits they deserve.
So far, so good. Under the old legacy system, VA appeals were taking anywhere from three to seven years. Under the reformed VA appeals system, certain appeals are reportedly averaging 36 days. If you disagree with a VA decision, the VA RAMP program and AMA are being touted as making appeals much more efficient.
What Is the VA RAMP Program?
Discontinued in February 2019, the VA Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (“RAMP”) was a program that aimed to help the VA and veterans transition from the old legacy appeals system into the new veteran appeals law – the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 (Appeals Modernization Act).
“VA has been preparing for full implementation of the Appeals Modernization Act over the past 18 months to ensure the new, streamlined process is available to veterans who have long sought reform of the broken legacy system,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a press release.
Started in November 2017, participation in RAMP was voluntary. The VA RAMP program offered quicker turnaround on appealed claims and, rather than making veterans follow a long line of procedural reviews, allowed veterans to opt-in at certain levels.
At first, veterans who participated in RAMP could choose to have their VA decision reviewed by either Supplemental Claim or Higher-Level Review – both choices offering processing times averaging just four months.
With the Supplemental Claim option, veterans could submit new evidence to support their claim. The Higher-Level Review option allowed veterans to have a new, higher level adjudicator review their previous VA decision (using the same evidence considered in the previous decision).
In October 2018, veterans in the RAMP program became eligible for a third review option, the option to appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.
How Does the New VA Appeals System Work?
President Trump signed the Appeals Modernization Act into law on August 23, 2017, in an effort to resolve the ever-increasing backlog of pending appeals. Before the new VA appeals law, pending appeals piled up from 100,000 in 2001 to 450,000 in 2017 – an appalling increase of 350%.
The AMA promises a more efficient review process, faster decisions, and early resolutions. Importantly, veterans have more decisions as to how the VA reviews their claim.
Under the reformed VA appeals system, veterans have one year from receiving their VA decision to appeal. When they appeal, they can choose one of three review options: Higher Level Review, Supplemental Claim, or Direct Appeal to the Board.
- Higher-Level Review: A senior adjudicator (Decision Review Officer) will take a fresh look at the previous VA decision using the same evidence considered before (no new evidence). This adjudicator can then decide to overturn the decision if he or she has a difference of opinion or finds a clear and unmistakable error. If there is an error involving the VA’s duty to assist, the adjudicator can request a correction.
- Supplemental Claim: Veterans can opt to submit new and relevant evidence to support their appeal. New and relevant evidence might include nexus opinions for service connection, additional medical records regarding disability, work history records, or any other evidence to support a claim. The VA has a duty to assist you in locating and providing records or other evidence.
- Appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals: This option allows veterans to appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Previously, review before the Board could take three years or more. Under the new AMA appeals system, the VA aims for a decision in one year or less. Three choices are available under this option:
- Direct review: Fastest option. No new evidence. No hearing.
- New evidence submission: No hearing. New evidence submitted within 90 days of Notice of Disagreement (“NOD”).
- Hearing: New evidence and testimony in front of a judge.
If you aren’t satisfied with your review, you can try another option. If you disagree with the Higher-Level Review decision, you can appeal directly to the Board of Veterans Appeals, or with new evidence in a Supplemental Claim.
The only direction you can’t go is to appeal a Board decision to the Higher-Level review or to appeal to the Board two consecutive times. If you want to appeal an adverse decision made by the Board, you can either submit a Supplemental Claim or appeal to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (“CAVC”). You also cannot do a Higher Level Review appeal of a Higher Level Review decision.
No matter what review option you choose, the same potential effective date for your benefits applies—so long as you continue to keep the case on active appeal by taking action within one year. The VA has stated that its goal is to complete Higher-Level Reviews and Supplemental Claims in an average of 4.2 months and Appeals to the Board for direct review in an average of one year.
Which VA Appeals Review Option Should You Use?
Each AMA appeals review option comes with certain benefits and limitations. And there are always exceptions. We recommend that veterans speak with an experienced veterans’ disability advocate to determine which option is best for a specific case. Under the new AMA, it is more important than ever that veterans seek the counsel of an experience veterans benefits attorney after the initial VA denial. Legal counsel is needed when making the appeal lane selection and this process should not be left to non attorneys. Here are some general guidelines:
If you have new evidence that you feel will support your appeal, you may want to choose the Supplemental Claim option. A reviewer will look over your new evidence and determine whether it changes the VA’s decision. Veterans with new evidence have one year from their decision date to file a Supplemental Claim.
Instead of a Supplemental Claim, veterans with new evidence may want to appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, either without a hearing or with a hearing and testimony in front of a judge. This path of appeals takes a bit longer (around one year versus 4-5 months for Supplemental Claims) but can allow you to present new arguments and a more detailed appeal.
Rare veterans appeal cases like fiduciary claims and multiple parties claiming the same benefit aren’t typically eligible for the Supplemental Claims option. These cases would need to file a new claim to insert new evidence or choose another appeal review option like a Higher-Level Review of the same evidence as before or Board Appeal (as long as it’s a review of an initial claim – not after a Higher-Level Review or Board Appeal).
No New Evidence
If you have no new evidence to present but think the VA made a mistake during their review, you can choose a Higher-Level Review. Here, you are asking for a new review of the same evidence by a new, senior reviewer. You and your veterans’ disability lawyer can argue what you think the error may be and/or why you think the VA should change their decision with the new reviewer..
Higher-Level reviews are available for veterans who are appealing initial claims or Supplemental Claims. They are not available to review previous Higher-Level reviews or Board Appeals.
You can also appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals before a veterans’ law judge – with or without a hearing. Veterans are eligible to appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals after an initial claim, Supplemental Claim, or Higher-Level Review decision.
For all review options, veterans have one year from the decision date to appeal – except appeals from a Board decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims must be filed within 120 days of a final Board denial.
How Are Old Cases Under VA RAMP Program Handled Now?
The VA RAMP program ended on February 14, 2019. It stopped accepting RAMP elections from those with legacy appeals on February 15, 2019, but continued processing pending claims. The VA will process claims filed on or after February 19, 2019 under the new AMA appeals system.
Veterans with pending legacy appeals (whether or not they participated in RAMP) can now opt-into the AMA appeals system at certain points in the process. Currently, veterans with appeals in the old process can transfer to the new AMA process within 60 days of receiving a Statement of the Case (“SOC”) or Supplemental Statement of the Case (“SSOC”).
We’re hoping this stab at VA appeals reform is successful. The Appeals Modernization Act offers several advantages, and if things go as planned, veterans who disagree with VA decisions could be getting numerous new reviews – and answers to those reviews – in the same amount of time it used to take to get just one decision under the legacy system. However, it remains to be seen whether the new quicker appeals process will actually result in more favorable decisions for veterans.
Currently, the VA Appeals Management Office reports that, during the RAMP program, it processed over 75,000 claims and awarded a reported $378 million in retroactive benefits. While specific concerns around funding and staffing still exist and plenty of veterans are still struggling to get decisions, we’re excited to see that the VA has made a substantial effort to eliminate the unacceptable backlog and deliver well-deserved benefits to veterans and their families.
Don’t give up. If you or someone you know has been denied VA benefits, we can help. Our Veterans’ Disability Benefits Law Firm specializes in handling difficult, hard to prove cases that have been on appeal for years. Contact us today at 888.878.9350 or Use This Online Form.