September 10, 2017

I should preface this post by saying that I grew up in a family whose members served in active military duty. My brother was a Marine during the Gulf War and our father was (“was” being the operative word) a proud soldier in the Vietnam War. As such, I have plenty of misgivings when it comes to what our government and military do to us, both in times of war and in the aftermath of such conflicts.

Now, as of August, 2017, I see that the vets are being screwed over again, this time by the VVA (Vietnam Veterans of America) who believe they are a better voice for the veterans than the veterans themselves.

Veteran reform legislation has been signed into law. The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act, which was signed by President Donald J. Trump, is designed to rectify the dreadfully backed up process of making decisions on appeals of veterans’ disability claims.

But the VVA is refusing to support the bill, saying that it will solve the problem at too great a price for veterans.

According to Jon’s Bill, the current system for veterans to appeal their disability ratings is antiquated to say the least. How antiquated? Well, it hasn’t been amended since 1993. And in recent years, the number of vets seeking to appeal their ratings has skyrocketed by thirty percent, making for a backlog of more than 450,000 cases.

The most shameful part of all is, every veteran has to go through the same rigorous, sluggish process to appeal, regardless of the severity or nuances of their case. What’s worse, if new information is introduced to their case file, the process then restarts from scratch.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin who was with President Trump for the signing of the bill claimed that some appeals cases have taken as long as 6 years to be processed.

A lot of these cases boil down to simple military oversight. Many of our veterans have hearing loss or blindness due to insufficient gear. For instance, a substantial number of veterans lost their hearing because they weren’t provided adequate ear protection during the time that they served in active duty.

As a result of gun and mortar fire, their hearing was compromised. And the same can be said of the men and women who have served our country and lost their eyesight because the Army didn’t outfit them with proper eye protection.

Estimates point to over 28 million Americans being afflicted with hearing loss and disabled veterans make up the vast majority of those numbers. And vision loss is also a major issue plaguing vets with 64 percent of service members suffering from traumatic brain injuries experiencing vision impairment.

The new law seeks to help these brave people in a more timely and organized fashion. The “three-lane option” represents the three areas of consideration that would be implemented, namely Local Higher Level Review, New Evidence and Board Review.

The Local Higher Level Review would offer veterans an expedited resolution of their claim by a higher-level adjudicator at the VA Regional Office. This lane would be for those vets who believe they have all of the evidence sufficient for proving their claim.

The New Evidence lane would strictly be for submitting new information to the VA Regional Office.

Finally, the Board Review would do away with the arbitrary intermediate steps that are normally requisite by statute to receive a Board review. Communication would also become a non-issue as hearing and non-hearing cases would be reviewed on separate dockets.

Another vital provision of the bill mandates that the VA more clearly inform veterans of the reasoning behind the decisions made in a case. This should enable veterans to better determine whether they should file an appeal and which lane applies to their respective case.

All of these changes could significantly improve a broken system and speed up the slow pace at which appeals are reviewed.

Unfortunately, as with the Agent Orange Settlement Fund, it looks like it might take some time before the VVA will come around on this new precedent.

The most mind-boggling element here is the fact that the bill has had near-unanimous support among all major veteran-related organizations from the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) to the American Legion and AMVETS.

The only ones with any qualms about this new law are those at the VVA and their accusations that the bill would undermine individual protections such as the duty-to-assist obligations of the VA during appeals has been contested by its supporters.

The executive director of DAV has said that the duty-to-assist obligation will not apply during initial lanes of appeal, adding that it will only be there if a veteran files an appeal within a year based on new evidence.

Still, the VVA aren’t having it and their reasons seem more than a little immature. Rick Weidman of the VVA said that their priorities for reforming the appeals process went largely ignored during discussions. Such priorities included allowing claim court decisions and board decisions as well as important VA rating decisions.

Weidman is particularly butt-hurt over what he sees as a solution for the VA as opposed to a solution for US veterans. “What VA wanted in the beginning was worse than what we got,” he said without detecting a hint of irony in his lousy choice of words.

But for all his jibber jabber about how vets should want a just decision instead of a fast decision, even the VVA had to concede that the new law would yield quicker appeal decisions and start to make a dent in a backlog of cases that continue to steadily pile up day after day, year after year.

With approximately 150,000 current appeals pending before the Board of Appeals, there is no time like the present for the plight of the war veteran to finally be remedied. Change is gonna come. Oh, yes, it will.

And it won’t come soon enough; the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act will not be effective until 2018.

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