This is the first in a series of posts about the VA RAMP Appeals Reform Program, which will be implemented beginning in 2018.
THIS IS CRITICAL TO NOTE: Technically, VA RAMP refers to the VA pilot program to implement the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017. However, I use the term interchangeably, since the pilot program will become the actual program. This is problematic, because in reality, we have 3 Appeal processes: Legacy appeals, RAMP Pilot Appeals, and RAMP Actual Appeals, the latter of which has not yet been implemented but could be any time. Throughout this post, here's how I differentiate the 3 appeals processes:
VA RAMP (pilot)
VA RAMP (actual)
VA RAMP (actual) makes massive structural and procedural changes to the VA Appeals process -- it is critical that attorneys, agents and representatives who advocate for veterans and survivors in disability claims start learning what is going to happen in our clients' appeals.
Let me be blunt: VA RAMP(actual)will change the way you practice veterans law, it will require you to change your firm's processes and systems, and it may well change the way your firm is structured.
Unfortunately, we do not yet have a "when" for the launch of the VA RAMP (actual)program. We know that the full program won't go into effect before February 2019, but I suspect that its going to be well after that.
As I will discuss in Part 5 of this series, the VA has started a "VA RAMP Pilot Program" to start testing the assumptions on which they based the program.
At the time of this post, in mid-December 2017, the VA RAMP (pilot) is very unpopular - only 20 of the 5,500 veterans invited to participate have opted in.
I suspect you'll understand why when I share how it works.
Here's how this series of posts will be structured:
Part I (this post): This is an introduction to VA RAMP (actual). I will discuss what VA RAMP (actual) is, how VA appeals reform and modernization came about, and identify the 2 core structural changes that underlie the entire VA RAMP (actual) program.
Part II (Click here to read Part II): I will discuss the first major structural change: the 3 types of appeals.
Part III: I will dive into the second structural change: the 3 BVA hearing lanes.
Part IV: I will talk about what pieces of the old process will be scrapped, and the pieces that were added to make the process at least appear cohesive.
Part V: I will begin discussing the VA RAMP (pilot) program, and give you ideas about what you can do to help get your veteran and survivor clients ready for the changeover, and ready to make some really tough decisions.
Without further ado, let's jump into Part One.
RAMP stands for Rapid Appeals Modernization Program. Conceptually, it is an attempt by the VA to fix its own appeals process and appeals processing timelines.
After spending a half-decade trying to "fix" its claims processing timelines, around 2012 - 2013, the VA came under intense scrutiny for its claims and appeals processing timelines.
In response to that scrutiny, the VA put together a plan for reforming the appeals process. I have my personal opinions on this program, but will not voice them here.
This program came about through heavy lobbying by the VA of Congress from 2014-2017. It was signed into law in August 2017.
A small handful of VSOs and veterans advocacy groups did get a seat at the "negotiating table" and were permitted to discuss the VA's plan and ask questions. Some of the organizations invited were allowed to make suggestions, but largely the process was a top down initiative. Make no mistake: the VA bureaucracy owns this program, one-hundred percent.
Since 2015, I have served on the Board of Directors for the National Organization for Veterans Advocates (NOVA). NOVA had a representative at this table, and during the 2 years the VA pushed the VA RAMP (actual) program out, the Board of Directors reviewed and debated the VA's proposals and its implications to attorney and VSO representation.
My goal in this post is singular: to provide a basic understanding of the framework of the VA RAMP (actual) Appeals Reform program for those who represent Veterans, whether a VSO representative, and accredited agent, or a VA accredited attorney.
So, let's jump in.
The VA Ramp (actual) Appeals Reform process is built upon 2 key structural changes to the VA disability appeals system.
Overview of the Current VA Appeals Process.
Under the current process - which will now be called the "Legacy Appeals" process - the veteran or survivor must file a notice of disagreement (NOD) to a VA ratings decision. The VA can continue the denial of the claim through a Statement of the Case (SOC) and the veteran must then file a substantive appeal (typically on VA Form 9).
The appeal is then certified - or "activated" - to the BVA, and in about 5-8 years it is docketed for a hearing. After the hearing, the appeal is placed in another multi-year queue for a BVA decision.
That process is largely going to be scrapped. In Part IV, I will show you what will remain of that process and why.
The VA currently cobbles together about 2 dozen computer systems to track, monitor and manage appeals and electronic appeals files.
There has been no indication how these systems - built using programming tools from the 1990s - will be capable of managing the new VA RAMP (actual) system. But that is another discussion for another day.
Let's take a quick look at the 2 major structural changes coming in VA RAMP (actual).
Once the VA denies a claim - or better said, if your veteran or survivor client is not satisfied with the VA decision - you as an advocate will advise your client to take one of 3 appellate options:
Option 1: Supplemental Claims
Option 2:Higher Level Review
Option 3: A BVA Hearing
There are pros and cons to each option, and each option will affect the unique strategy of your case differently, as you will see in Part II.
The general idea was to reduce BVA hearing wait times by creating a system where hearings are an option of necessity, after full development, not a mere knee-jerk reaction to a denial. Again, I have my opinions, but will keep them to myself for now.
To achieve this outcome, the VA created the above 3 types of appellate review our clients can pursue, depending on what is "best" for them.
One of the biggest drawbacks in the current system are that the length of the BVA hearing process often means the appeal, its evidence, and the extent of the veteran's medical disability will look very different at the hearing then it did 8 years earlier when the appeal was filed.
Another drawback flowed from the fact that the BVA uses remands as a quasi-discovery tool to update the evidence in the file after it has idled on the BVA docket for nearly a decade.
The second structural change was an attempt to address those problems.
Once VA RAMP (actual) goes into effect, if your veteran or survivor client choose the BVA hearing option, they will have to opt into 1 of 3 hearing "lanes".
The idea was that BVA hearings could be sorted into a slow, medium and fast lane, depending on much factual development of the record was still needed or required, and what sort of hearing, if any, might be needed.
That means that the choice of which BVA hearing lane to take will be driven by whether you want to add new evidence before the hearing, when you want to introduce that evidence and whether you want a BVA Hearing.
In Part II, I will dive into the 3 appeal options in great detail and tell you what we know so far about them.
When the post goes live in a couple days, this text will be replaced with a link to the second post in the series.