If there is one topic that I am asked about on an almost daily basis, it is whether there is anything I can do to make the VA speed up the appeals process. And, if I am being completely honest, I have to respond that, while there are a few exceptions, there is not much anyone can do to speed things up under the VA’s current appeals system.
The most recent information I have seen indicates that a veteran who files a notice of disagreement at the St. Petersburg VA Regional Office can expect to wait more than 500 days for a decision on that appeal. Veterans who file their appeal in the Cleveland VA Regional Office can expect to wait twice that amount of time for a decision. The wait time varies between the different regional offices, but almost every veteran can anticipate that the wait will be long. Similarly, if a veteran needs to appeal the decision of a regional office to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, the wait time is currently in the range of three years.
The VA does have some avenues for expediting a case. The regional offices and the Board have identified certain circumstances under which they will move a case up in the line:
- Advanced Age. There is some dispute among the regional offices and the Board about at what age a veteran qualifies for expedite. Board regulations specify that a veteran over the age of 75 is entitled to expedite. Some regional offices have told us that because they have so many cases with veterans in that age group, they are considering only veterans of 80 or 85 for an expedite.
- Seriously Ill. This standard is somewhat subjective as all of the veterans filing appeals in the VA system are disabled in some way. Arguing that a veteran is in poor health needs to be backed up with evidence in the form of medical records. VA does act more quickly in the case of a veteran who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
- Severe Financial Hardship. Again, this standard is subjective. Many disabled veterans are suffering from financial problems, and this claim would have to be backed up by evidence of financial hardship. The documents we have found to be most successful in proving financial hardship severe enough to qualify for expedite includes evidence of filing for bankruptcy and/or evidence of foreclosure or eviction.
I should qualify the above information with an acknowledgment that even cases which are expedited are not going to receive immediate decisions. In a backlogged, overwhelmed VA system, there are so many veterans of advanced age, poor health, and in financial distress that even veterans whose cases have been expedited must continue to stand in a line.
Veterans often ask if involving their Congressman or contacting the media can help their case. Occasionally, if the veteran is lucky enough to have a Congressman take a personal interest in the case, this could be helpful. More often, however, this type of request involves a staffer sending a form letter to the VA asking for the status of the case and a brief reply from the VA explaining the status of the case. It does not usually speed things up at all.
So, what happens if the VA takes longer than these average wait times to decide an appeal? Is there anything we can do then? In that case, there are avenues to ask the Court of Veterans Appeals to force the VA to take action in a case. We can file a Petition for Writ of Mandamus with the Court, requesting that the Court order the VA to act. This kind of petition is not a magic wand—it does not guarantee a favorable decision—but, if it gets to a point where the VA’s delay is outside the norm and essentially amounts to a refusal to take action in a case, the Court can require that the VA take some kind of action in order to move the case forward and at least allow the veteran to appeal his case to the next level.
There are always proposals for ways to speed up the VA, some good, some not-so-good. A slow “yes” is obviously better than a quick “no” from the VA, so we have to balance the idea of speeding things up with the need for a quality decision which grants the veteran every benefit to which he or she is entitled. Until we have a better system in place, we have to be prepared for long waits. We can keep pushing at the VA to make the right decision, but we cannot make them do it in a timely manner.