VA says it’s ready for appeals modernization, but IT upgrades have fallen behind

Preparations for a new appeals process at the Veterans Benefits Administration are two-thirds of the way complete, but IT upgrades have fallen behind.

The Veterans Affairs Department had originally told Congress it would finish three-quarters of the IT upgrades it needs some time next month in order to implement a new, faster appeals process by the congressionally-mandated deadline by early next year.

But VA expects now it will have roughly 35 percent of its needed IT updates complete in August. The remaining upgrades will come in December, two months before VA is expected to fully implement its new appeals process.

Since Congress passed and the president signed the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act into law last summer, VA is piloting and has seen some success with the new process, otherwise known as the Rapid Appeals Modernization Plan (RAMP).

But with the timeline already delayed and a good memory of VA’s past failed projects, members of Congress said they’re still approaching the agency’s ongoing appeals modernization effort with some caution.

“VA has been fairly famous for not delivering on time,” Roe said.

He heard similar promises from the department a week ago, when VA updated the House committee on its progress in updating IT systems to comply with the new Forever GI bill.

Still, new VA Undersecretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence said the department is on track. He said he and his team have been meeting with the Board of Veterans Appeals, Government Accountability Office and others regularly to prepare for next February.

“We are very confident in our delivery schedule right now,” Lloyd Thrower, deputy chief information officer and benefits account manager for VA’s Office of Information and Technology, said. “Once we broke this out in February and looked at individual requirements, we stacked them, ranked them and built a schedule that had a very level effort, so that we can have a level amount of effort throughout the entire year. We’ve met every single milestone that we’ve had. The pieces that we’re delivering right now, the specific function points in August, are actually the heavy-lift pieces.”

The Veterans Benefits Administration said it originally wrote its timeline for appeals modernization IT upgrades based on an early analysis of its requirements. It submitted its IT plan to Congress back in February, and since then, it’s adjusted the timeline.

“Can you see why this committee is a little concerned on where we’re going with this?” Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.) said. “If you don’t make it, what’s the plan? Because you’re telling me you’re going to make it … but every time we turn around, it’s ‘We’re going to get there. We guarantee we’re going to get there.’ We’re just getting toward the edge.”

Members weren’t immediately outraged by VA’s new timeline. But the tone may change if VBA misses the February deadline and must begin processing veterans appeals manually, which Lawrence said the agency would do if its IT systems weren’t ready.

“Our current estimate is based on a detailed examination of the business and engineering requirements as they relate to the [Veterans Benefits Management System] software,” Lawrence said. “It accounts for core pieces that must be installed in the August release before other changes may be added in the software development process.”

Even with much of the IT work unfinished, VBA said the entire appeals modernization project is two-thirds of the way complete. The agency submitted regulations for the new RAMP system to the Federal Register earlier this month. About 99 percent of claims processing staff have been trained on the new system.

But the Government Accountability Office also has concerns VBA will make its February 2019 deadline.

“It will be challenging,” Elizabeth Curda, GAO’s director of education, workforce and income security, told the committee. “As it stands now, I’m a little concerned about the lack of detail. But if the detailed information that the board and VBA are talking about is available and would make it available to us to take a look at it, we might have greater assurance than we have right now.”

Veterans slow to warm up to new appeals process

As of July of this year, 31,000 veterans have opted into the new RAMP system, Lawrence said.

Under VA’s pilot, veterans can choose to withdraw their existing appeal and transfer to the new RAMP system. The process gives veterans two different paths to pursue their appeals within the Veterans Benefits Administration. One “lane” gives veterans the option to waive their right to a hearing or the ability to submit new evidence to get a faster decision.

So far, two-thirds of veterans are selecting the higher-level review, while the remaining third have opted to use the faster process, said David McLenachen, director of VBA’s appeals management office.

On average, VBA has processed appeals under the new RAMP process within 84 days.

Roe said he’s heard veterans speak of the RAMP process highly. But several members are still concerned not enough veterans have opted in to try it.

After all, VBA doesn’t expect to resolve its legacy appeals until 2020.

The agency still has a backlog of roughly 400,000 pending appeals, even as the agency is set to deliver a record number of decisions in fiscal 2018, Lawrence said.

In addition, the Board of Veterans Appeals has 84,000 pending hearing requests. The board’s chairwoman, Cheryl Mason, acknowledged her organization is behind. The board has closed 13,000 requests and made offers for 25,000 hearings.

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