The VA appeals system for disability compensation claims has been confusing and complicated for years. Veterans often give up because they get overwhelmed and exhausted. The VA is hopeful that the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act (AMA) is a more veteran friendly, streamlined process. Is it? Time will tell. But in the meantime, here’s a basic overview of the AMA.
The AMA went into effect on Feb. 19, 2019. Right now, the VA has TWO appeals systems – the AMA and the legacy appeals system. Arguably, this does not help with the confusing nature of VA appeals. However, the legacy appeals system will end when the appeals currently in it are resolved, which will take many years. All veterans who did not opt in before the AMA took effect will stay in the legacy appeals system until they get a new decision that allows them to get into the AMA. A veteran does not have to jump into the AMA in response to that new decision, and can instead stay in the legacy appeals system until their case concludes if they so choose.
Moving onto the AMA itself, if a case is denied at the regional office level, the lowest level of appeal, a veteran now has three options. First, the veteran can request “higher level review.” This is where a senior adjudicator reviews the decision to, hopefully, reverse it. The veteran cannot submit new evidence so this is a good choice if the veteran has no new evidence and the law is on her side. The veteran can submit argument, just not any more evidence. This is where attorneys perk up because, after all, we are trained arguers.
Option two is to file a “supplemental claim.” This allows the veteran to send in more evidence to support their case. Here’s the rub with this option: the evidence submitted must be “new” and “relevant” to the claims on appeal. The veteran can also submit argument in addition to the new and relevant evidence.
The third option in response to a denial by the regional office is to take the case to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) in Washington, DC. However, there are more options inside this option! Any veteran who chooses this path must also decide what review lane they want their appeal to be in at the BVA. Are you confused yet? If so, you are in good company.
At the BVA the veteran can choose the “direct lane,” which is a lot like higher level review described above because no new evidence is allowed, but argument is permitted. The benefit of the direct lane is that the case goes to an actual judge and, at least right now, decisions in this lane are made quickly.
Secondly there’s the “evidence lane” which allows the veteran to submit new evidence (and argument). However, the veteran must send the evidence in with the appeal or within 90 days of the date the BVA receives the appeal, so if time is tight this can be a dicey option.
Finally, there’s the “hearing lane” option at the BVA. If a veteran wants “their day in court,” so to speak, they can request a hearing. BVA judges used to conduct hearings in every state but not anymore. If a veteran wants an in person BVA hearing now they have to get to Washington, DC. Also, there are time limits on when new evidence can be sent in, which I won’t go into now for fear of confusing you to the point of no return.
If the BVA denies the case again, all is not lost! The veteran can appeal to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims OR file a supplemental claim with new and relevant evidence (see my explanation of this option above).
What if a veteran chooses an option and then realizes he made the wrong decision? Veterans can switch options but there are time limits to do so. I will not detail this process in the interests of not making your head explode.
In light of the above explanation of the AMA with all of its options (and I did not go into all of the rules, deadlines and particularities of each option, of which there are quite a few), some might conclude that it is anything BUT streamlined and veteran friendly. However, remember that the AMA is brand new and the VA is nothing if not ever-changing. Which, on that note, please keep in mind that the information in this blog post is subject to change. Also, the VA truly is well intentioned and wants an improved appeals system. It’s entirely possible that as the AMA moves along, changes will happen that improve the process and really do make it better and easier for veterans seeking disability compensation.