As some of you may have heard, the VA is implementing a new program of new procedures with the goal of speeding up the handling and resolution of appeals. The program has been dubbed the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP) and has begun to be offered to veterans in select areas as of October 2017 to opt into the process. It will be a voluntary option and totally up to the veteran as to whether he/she chooses to opt into the new program or remain with the existing appeals process. To opt-in, the veteran must file a “RAMP Opt-In Election” Form that will be attached to a letter sent by the VA informing the veteran of this new process.
If a veteran opts into the new RAMP process, the veteran has to withdraw any pending appeals and then the VA will make several other choices available. Once opting in, the veteran can choose from the following:
- Supplemental Claim Lane – If you have new and relevant information for your claim, the VA is recommending that you choose the Supplemental Claim Lane. They will attempt to process your appeal then within an average of 125 days. You must be ready to submit your additional new information very quickly for this option to work.
- Higher-Level Review Lane – With appeals for which you have no additional evidence to submit but you believe an error was made in the decision, you can choose the Higher-Level Review Lane. Your claims will then be fully reviewed by a new claims adjudicator. You should be aware that the new review will only consider evidence the VA already has at the time the veteran opts in so no new evidence can be submitted for consideration.)
- Once in the RAMP program, if a Higher-Level Review Lane appeal is denied, a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) should still be filed within one year to continue the appeal, but the NOD will send the appeal straight to the BVA. This is supposed to save time by not having to wait for the issuance of the Regional Office’s Statement of the Case (SOC) or Supplemental Statement of the Case (SSOC) before filing a Form 9 to forward the appeal to the BVA as is done in the existing appeals process.
While in the Higher-Level Review Lane, a veteran can still request that an informal conference is held. If the appeal has reached the BVA, the veteran may still request that a hearing by video conference or a hearing in Washington D.C. be held (but Travel Board hearings will no longer be an option).
If the process isn’t resolved after choosing the Supplemental Claim Lane above, then the veteran would still have the option to choose the Higher Level Review Lane.
The VA says that opting into the new process will NOT change the potential effective date of the claim (which is important to preserve as it could substantially affect the amount of retroactive pay a veteran receives if his/her claim or appeal is granted). As always though, to preserve the effective date, the veteran must continue to appeal any claim denials without letting deadlines lapse. This could include:
- Requesting a higher level review within one year of a decision.
- Submitting a supplemental claim within one year of a decision.
- Filing an NOD within one year of a decision.
- Submitting a supplemental claim within one year of a BVA decision.
- Submitting a supplemental claim within one year of a CAVC decision.
Still To Be Determined….
If this RAMP process truly speeds up the handling of cases as it is supposed to, what remains to be seen are if other measures will be taken to speed up other parts of the process of handling a VA appeal. One of the issues that currently exists that slows down appeals, is the delay in receiving a veteran’s Claims File. (The Claims File contains all of the documents pertaining to the history of a veteran’s claims/appeals and includes all the documentation that the VA has obtained on a veteran’s behalf or that the veteran may have sent in.) Our office always orders the Claims File as soon as we agree to accept a veteran’s case. However, we often have to wait for 6 months to a year (or more) to receive the Claims file. Having the complete Claims File is essential for reviewing the specifics of an appeal and knowing what may still need to be done for the appeal.
Another question that arises is – if a huge number of veterans opt into the new process – will that bog down the intended outcome of handling the claims more efficiently?
Also – what will the VA consider to be “new and relevant” evidence?
Will these changes require the creation of numerous new positions at the VA, and if so, has the VA been adequately funded to pay for those positions? Or will the VA draw on its existing pool of employees and pull them away from the current appeal process and potentially slow it down further?
We all need to know answers to these and other questions as the letters from the VA informing veterans of their options are starting to be sent to veterans in certain areas already. The VA plans to implement the plan in more areas by early 2018.