House Veterans Affairs Committee Hearing on VA Appeals Process, Dec 12 2018

call the meeting to order good morning thank you all for being here today this is the final hearing we will hold this session on the implementation of the veterans appeals improvement and modernization act or 2017 also called AMA let me start by thanking acting deputy secretary burned for his being here today thank you for being here as you know the AMA requires the secretary to certify in January of 2019 that the department has the resources personnel and procedures and information technology to carry out the new appeals system while timely addressing both new and legacy appeals the AMA also provides the secretary with the authority to delay the effective date of a law if VA is not fully prepared to implement appeals reform since the secretary is responsible for certifying that the department is ready I believe it's important for Congress and the veteran community hear from senior leadership on the status of the implementation understanding miss Mason has been delegated the authority to oversee the implementation but your presence here today mr. Bern demonstrates the Secretary's commitment to ensuring this program is implemented correctly and thank you all all for being here today I want to talk about the VA s progress updating its IT system publishing final implementing regulations and forms and completing training for employees and appropriately allocating staff and resources which all must be completed within the next two months I was encouraged by the recent August and November updates to Vaz plan which shows the steps which showed the steps VA is taking to effectively overhaul the current appeals process however I am uncertain that all the components needed for Appeals reform will be completed on time while we are all excited for appeals reform to roll out it's also important for VA to understand that this committee does not wish for VA to push out the new appeal system in February if it's not truly ready that's one lesson we've all learned from the forever GI bill implementation one of my main concerns is whether VA s IT system will be be fully functional by February of 2019 VA needs robust IT systems that are capable of handling Appeals under the AMA during the July appeals hearing under secretary for benefits dr. Lawrence testified that up about a hundred percent of the IT functionality will be delivered by this month and I would like to know if that timeline remains accurate if he s appeals IT will not be ready in time I want to hear what the VA s contingency plan is turning to regulations according to the November 2018 Appeals report VA said it planned to send OMB the final regulations for approval by November 13th 2018 but I'd also like to know whether this has taken place additionally I'm looking forward to an update from VA about how it intends to effectively balance appeals under the new system and the legacy inventory right now VA has almost 400,000 Appeals pending VA anticipated that the rapid appeals modernization program or ramp which allows veterans who are have pending appeals to transfer to the new system would help reduce the backlog however a ramp has had only a 16% take rate from the legacy inventory I'd like to hear today how long will be it will take VA and the board to decide all remaining legacy appeals whether it would be 1 5 or 10 years despite ramps low opt-in rate I'm curious about how the department is used the feedback it is received from ramp to test assumptions and to make adjustments to the new appeal system accordingly I want to make sure that VA is using ramp to inform the new system and not as a means to disguise a true size of Appeals backlog I also would like to hear from that about the training provided to employees my staff visited the Denver Regional Office in October and the employee shared that VA guidance on the new system was confusing and that it needed additional training they needed additional training to understand the new procedures I'm hoping to have a productive discussion today to ensure that when the law is fully implemented all veterans will receive correct and timely decisions again I want to thank the witnesses for being here today to discuss this important matter and just as an aside I've spoken to several veterans who've opted in the ramp program and when they do the results have been good I'll have to say I've been encouraged by that and if it can be if it's scalable if we have the capacity to do it and that's what we're here to hear from you all today then I think it has a chance to be very successful I can remember sitting right down there ten years ago and there were a million appeals claims backlog so there is even though it doesn't at four hundred thousands a lot if you're one veteran out there whose appeal hadn't been looked at it's a hundred percent for you there has been improvement and changes have been made I'll now like to yield to ranking member st for her opening comments Thank You mr. chairman and I associate myself with all of his comments in particular the same issue areas that I think all of us on the committee would like to get your review of your guidance your input so that together we can move this forward I'm happy to welcome everyone here today as we enter the home stretch on the implementation of the Appeals Modernization Act today is this committee's final check in with Gao the Veterans Benefits Administration and the board of veterans appeals before the Act is fully implemented on February 14th or there abouts as we've already discussed from what I'm reading in the testimony all systems look to be a go the secretary is expected to certify in January that the VA has the resources personnel office space procedures and information technology required but before that happens next month I want to just step back for a moment and highlight the process by which we arrived here because I believe that it is a model that for large-scale policy making that other committees this committee and other committees should look to duplicate first and foremost appeals modernization has been bipartisan from the beginning almost four years ago second the statue said in place an innovative system of progress supports from VA and Gao at regular intervals as rep as implementation planning was playing out third full VSO participation in all stages is required by the statute that's unprecedented and I'm happy to report that having checked with the VSO is this week and throughout the process they have generally been quite well pleased with the feedback they've been given the opportunity to share with VA and it has not only been shared but they are seeing evidence of that being incorporated in the planning process we want to make sure that that continues and we want to make sure that that's reflected in the OMB regulations I strongly encourage this structured VA Gao communication to continue after the rollout because it's the veteran's service representatives all around the country who are working with veterans every day and they are in the best position to give you constant feedback about how in fact all this planning is playing out in the real world another innovation in this law we're studying and applying more broadly is the authority that the statute provides VA to pilot various components both VBA and bv8 did avail themselves of this Authority and I know that the lessons learned in these pilots will mean and are already meaning a faster and fairer process for veterans in the end and that is after all the point of this whole undertaking we're on the verge of one of the most significant improvements in a generation in how veteran disability compensation claims are processed and I want to congratulate all those who have worked so hard to make these historic changes possible I'm going to congratulate our esteemed chairman dr. Rowe to the dama subcommittee and chairman mr. boss to the leadership in the VA in two different administrations to chairman Isaacson and ranking member tester our counterparts in the Senate and of course to the leadership at the VSOs who are willing to put aside quite a few concerns and differences at the start of this process to bring us all together to the able to come to where we are today I have some questions as well about the IT systems that I will reserve those for later but because this is my last opportunity as a member of this committee to publicly comment on this important reform I want to end my remarks with two points first with optimism with optimism about the possibilities that appeals reform hold to make more accurate and timely disability compensation for veterans and secondly with an appreciation for the unprecedented willingness that has been shown by all to communicate constantly and to work together in the service of the same goal that is serving the veterans that we are sworn to serve in honor for what they have provided to this country it has been a pleasure over the last two years to be on this committee last six years in Congress working on behalf of veterans and I want to again thank the chairman for his leadership my ranking member at my ranking member counterpart the chairman of the subcommittee mr. basta and for all the members of this team committee and for our guests here today thank you for your work every day on behalf of veterans Thank You mr. chairman I yield back thank gentlelady for yielding in for your kind comments joining us today of the Honorable James burned Acting Deputy Secretary he is accompanied by the Honorable Cheryl Mason chairman of the board of veterans appeals dr. David McClintock and director of the peels management office at the veterans benefit administration and by Lord Thor the deputy chief information officer Account Manager benefits portfolio of the Office of Information and Technology Elizabeth Carter the director of education workforce and income security team for Gao thank you all for being here this morning acting deputy secretary burns we'll start with you you recognized for five minutes good morning chairman row ranking member SD and members of the committee thank you for inviting me to testify on VA simplement ation of the veterans appeals improvement in Modernization Act of 2017 my thanks to this committee for its devotion to veterans for its strong support of veterans and VA and for keeping all of us above partisan politics I've been acting deputy secretary for just over three months the year before I served as the VA s general counsel and what is clear to me in a short time and to anyone watching is the VA is on the cusp of the most comprehensive approvement since World War two in large part that's thanks to this committees work and the administration's unmitigated support Appeals modernization is just one example of historic legislation Congress has given veterans in the last two years I'm happy to report that thanks to Cheryl's Dave's and Lloyds leadership and their team's great work we're on track for operational launch in February we will continue to keep the committee apprised of our progress and alerted to any early or delayed publication of the regulations before we take your questions I'd like to quickly touch on a few points the first board and VBA IT teams have fully integrated their activities and work collaboratively and productively over the past year we expect to meet all Appeals modernization IT milestones appeals modernization implementation is not facing the IT challenges we've seen with forever GI bill implementation second I appreciate concerns that appeals modernization could distract from legacy appeal work but we continue making historic progress on legacy Appeals we reduced the appeals inventory by 9.6 percent in fiscal year 18 despite receiving nearly a hundred and eighty eight thousand new Appeals VBA exceeded their production targets by 12.5% and the Board issued a record number of decisions 62 percent more than fiscal year 2017 we accomplished this by resolving over a hundred and sixty eight thousand Appeals and administering the rapid Appeals modernization program ramp will continue balancing resources with require and preserve focus on legacy appeals through implementation and beyond third to facilitate smooth implementation we set and achieved aggressive hiring goals and the board and VBA have collaborated on training and outreach the board has provided staff large-scale training that will continue through full implementation and VBA developed delivered and continuously updates training for employees involved in ramp in the new processes finally both ramp and the board's early applicability of Appeals modernization initiative beam have effectively tested processes technology and assumptions and helped inform the new system ramps giving eligible veterans opportunity to have decisions reviewed under modernized processes as of last Wednesday veterans had moved over seventy five thousand six hundred appeals from the legacy to the modernized process VBA has completed nearly 33,000 higher level review and supplemental claims decisions under ramp on average in about a hundred and twenty days and has paid almost a hundred and thirty seven million dollars in retroactive benefits in October the board began adjudicating Appeals in ramp as of Monday they received over nine hundred and thirty ramp appeals beam the smaller scale research program has captured qualitative feedback from veterans and representatives that will further inform implementation the board will provide beam outcomes in its assessments later this month Appeals modernization is a good news story for veterans in VA we collaborated on a realistic effective flexible plan and we've been executing against that plan and making steady progress veterans can expect a modernized appeal process on time in February 2000 nineteen thank you for your support and for inviting us to testify today and we look forward to your questions Thank You mr. Byrne and now miss curry you recognized for five minutes chairman row making member SD and of the committee thank you for inviting me to discuss Gio's observations on bas readiness to implement the reform of its disability appeal system I would like to commend the committee for your extensive oversight of EA's planning for this complex endeavor the new process will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of veterans with disabilities and therefore requires careful planning to improve the A's chance of success last March we reported that while VA s initial plan reflected aspects of sound planning improvements were still needed to provide greater assurance that Appeals reform will be successful we recommended VA splen one address all legally required elements in the appeals modernization act to articulate how it will monitor and assess the performance of its appeals processes three augment its project plan for implementation and for address risk more fully VA agreed with our recommendations today I will discuss our observations on how VA is updated plan reflects progress and implementing our four recommendations and areas where their plan could be more robust first regarding the five legal requirements that were not fully addressed in March VA has addressed one element related to projecting productivity and partially addressed four remaining elements for example VA s plan does not contain required metrics for monitoring implementation and is still missing information the agency will need to certify that it has the resources needed to carry out timely processing under the new and legacy appeal processes regarding assessing the performance of the new process VBA has established some new performance measures and has plans to develop more for example VA has taken steps to be able to measure and compare veterans satisfaction with the new and legacy appeals processes VA officials have stated they plan to establish a balanced set of performance measures for all five new appeals options as we recommended but VA has not yet documented all of these measures or how it will assess the relative performance of the new and legacy processes regarding project management VA has augmented its project plan to a limited extent last March we reported that VA s hire high-level master schedule did not include all key activities show how activities should be sequenced reflect interim goals and milestones for monitoring implementation or assign resources for activities although the A's project plan provides significantly more detail than it did initially we found the plan only minimally met sound practices for project management for example the schedule did not contain a work breakdown structure that defines the work activities and resources necessary to accomplish tasks further according to VA schedule the agency needs to complete 117 activities between January 1st and when it plans to implement in February the lack of a robust schedule poses risks to successful and smooth implementation in February finally regarding addressing risk more fully ba has addressed many but not all key risks to implementation for example VA is better positioned to mitigate risks by using new analytical tools to better project resource needs under different assumptions about opt-in rates and productivity VA has also addressed risk by testing the two appeals options at VBA through ramp and using preliminary results to update elements of the appeals process VA also initiated a small-scale non generalizable test of the three new board options VA has used this limited test to learn about veterans preferences among the new board options and to update the training guidance systems and forms needed for full implementation however VA has not tested all aspects of the new appeals process for example VA only recently began adjudicating cases for veterans in ramp who were allowed to appeal subsequently to the board BAS August 2018 progress report identified a risk that veterans may appeal to the board at higher rates which could have implications for timeliness and quality of decisions however VA s plan does not identify a mitigation strategy for this significant risk in summary VA has made some concrete progress to improve its planning for disability Appeals reform while it attends to legacy Appeals however significant risks exist with launching the new process in February fully implementing our recommend Asians could better position VA to ensure successful implementation but doing so prior to February 2019 may be challenging the option remains to phase in implementation to allow time for more testing and plan improvements in any event even after implementation VA could better assure that the new process meets veterans needs by continuing to approve its approach to performance measurement scheduling and risk management this concludes my prepared statement and I will be happy to address the committee's questions thank you miss Carla I will start yielding myself five minutes and I'll start with mr. Bern we're two months out from the earliest date and I heard you say that I think three times out from the earliest date that appeals monetization will be fully implemented do you throw if the secretary intends to certify hearing what mr. kurtter just said that appeals reform is ready for full implementation next month that's when he has to start a fire 30 days out that's correct sir he's ready to certify in January based upon what we know now okay know knowing that then I'll go straight to the next question which is directed at you also mr. Bern is that UVA agreed with all four of Gao s recommendations in March of this year that improved planting practices would be better ensure a successful appeals reform does VA continue to agree with those recommendations I'm trying to remember all there are four of them yes sir I believe so I asked for chairman Mason to help me with that question if that's so fine oh absolutely yes sir VA does continue to agree with Gio's recommendations and we're working very closely with Gao on implementing some of those changes and and taking some of the suggestions and working towards a more robust plan well then having if if we're ready to go in Gao says or the hundred and seventeen activities that they would recommend they're not sure you can get to that point and look I'm I'm all for if it takes another month believe me have to go on through this GI bill if it smart when we certified I don't have any problem with that some people have been waiting for you know five six seven eight years and so I think another month to get this out right and I think you all have made tremendous progress but how would you answer mr. Birnam is amazed neither one heard her comments just a minute ago that a phased in approach might be better my understanding is we are ready to go and we'll alert this body if we're going to be able to implement earlier or later as I understood some of the recommendations they were about backup and redundancy plans and I believe we have addressed some of those I'm not best positioned maybe to answer those but that the two core issues are are we ready with the regulations are we ready with the IT and there's my understanding that we are and we have good and I have good reason to believe based upon questions to these folks that we are and just a question on the IT I guess mr. Thor and when you put this and I've assumed you were the project manager on putting the system together how is it that this do you think this IT system is going to work and the GI bill didn't well actually on between oh I MT and okay and the board and but this is actually a very different scenario than the GI Bill first off I let me just tell you as of this past weekend we have deployed the solution for all of the ports of vie BMS that are required to implement this bill it is deployed and ready in the field the the case flow work has been incrementally delivered over the last nine months there are maybe two things that I know of that they're finishing up over the next month and those I have very good confidence about a very important difference in this scenario than the GI Bill scenario is that in this instance we are updating two to accomplish this we're updating two critical VA systems that we have actually had boots on the ground working very hard long before this path for this bill passed their team's execution teams were very familiar with the code they were fully funded and they and so we and and the level of requirements that we had to deal with was simpler I think you had another thing too I think the I think the idea that you phased in a ramp allowed you to see through any hiccups in there without just having all of it dumped in your lap at one time I think this that was a very smart way to do it to begin the way you did and then if there were problems they weren't major problems affecting hundreds of thousands of people are affected a few hundred or a few people maybe and you could see those and I think that was a I think there's a lesson to be learned there I truly do that's a very good observation sir thank you thank mr. Lamie recognized for five minutes Thank You mr. chairman if I could just pick up where the Chairman left off mr. thrower could you walk us through that a little bit how the rollout of new IT in this pilot project worked and maybe what the lessons are for other IT projects we have in the VA okay I guess I'm just asking are there concrete examples in the last year or so I will say that the most important I think that this was an excellent example of where the organization fully implemented its it sprint is agile development principles where we had incremental deliverables scheduled throughout the process we had first we had very tight integration with the business from day one so that was no no air gap between us in terms of understanding of requirements and what was needed we laid out a schedule early on of capabilities that needed to be done in May and September and in December which we we actually published in our report to Congress to you and then you had available to you on the VMs side on the on the case flow side we were doing incremental waves of development from actually from the last two years that have all fed into this successful implementation of this so throughout well-tested has the the case flow side of it been at this point you know how many cases it is handled actually I would have to defer to this basic case flow is currently operational has been operational from the point that vba puts the cases into the process into the board into intake and then case flow q manages the cases so pieces pieces of its have been built and operational so we started with the intake at the board and dispatch so all of our dispatch cases for at least I want to say the last six months I would have to double-check that but I'm pretty sure the last six months of FY 18 were all handled through the case load dispatch program and the intake part where the where the where VBA sends the cases into the board that's been I believe operational at the from VBA for about the same time period maybe a little bit more the case flow Q program at the board which manages the dockets that has been fully operational for the past couple of months we phased it in as well there was a user tester period and then we've continued to phase in we're currently in users in final user testing and phase in for the how the cases within AMA and legacy will be used through the algorithm that actually manages how the cases are dispersed so we're pretty we're pretty operational with all the cases currently at the board I guess I'm just asking for an estimate of the sample size that have been tried in that new program I would have to take the current I would have to take that as a do out on that I know majority of the cases dispatched from the board this last year the eighty-five thousand at least half of those came through case flow dispatch so those were all handled at that point I will have to get back to you on how many the case flow Q program is but it's currently running an operational the board and that's how our cases are being processed currently okay and what is user satisfaction appear to be with that so far I mean it's very high at the board yeah Dave same thing yes actually chairman Mason's correct in fact one of the first pieces that case flow delivered was when we certify an appeal to a legacy appeal to the board that's been in place for well over a year now and that actually doesn't just help the efficiency of managing the work and sending it over it actually improves the quality of our certifications to the board so it added a very large impact okay and was it was that an off-the-shelf purchase or was that partially developed within the VA can you just tell me the history of that okay slow yes case law was built by digital service that's what they were already working on digital service has been in VA since late 2015 and they were already working on building the case flow system before the law passed got it thank you very much mr. chairman I yield back thank general yielding a vice-chair bill raucous you recognized thank you thank you mr. Shermer I appreciate it first question is for acting deputy secretary burned according to information provided to staff the VB MS release scheduled for December 9 2018 was supposed to include the remainder the VP DBMS functionality needed to implement the law with planning production and validation testing occurring in January and February if after all the testing hopefully this is will not be the case but VA realizes that the VB EMS appeals functionality is not working as intended what does V A's a continue got back-up plan contingency plan back-up plan what have you so the legacy appeals process will still be working for for a while and so they would fall back into those is my understanding yet can you yes please sir and address the the new appeals as well well I will just say that the the work and VB MS to make it done is finished it is fully tested and is deployed okay let me let me ask another question of deputy secretary burned according to the November 2018 update VA plans to hire 542 new claims processors is that correct and will place them primarily at the dear office in st. Petersburg which is just outside of my district in Florida and in Seattle this is what I was told how many of the 542 new claim processors will be placed into the appeals positions at D rocks and near st. in st. Petersburg the division in st. Petersburg sir if I know that ask mr. McLintock and please specifics on that yes there's good news here congressman 605 FTE was he additional appropriation we got four appeals and FY 19 so thanks to the committee and others in Congress for that support I'm happy to report that about 75% of that hiring is already done the distribution between those two locations is about 400 in st. Pete and the remainder in Seattle as I said 75% complete those d rocks will be up and running by February okay how would how will you ensure that these people are appropriately trained again to on the appeals process and the applicable laws and regulations yes so we've already hired all of the management team for those two locations and we've hired all of the production employees with just a few exceptions majority of the production employees are already hired some of them are already in training and there we have training scheduled for the remainder to go into so they're going through our challenge training program to prepare them for doing that work that's all been scheduled and okay chairman Mason how many years do you estimate it will take for the board to address the current legacy appeals but backlog how many years would you say one year two years three years it's gonna take more than one year sir give me a ballpark please that's really hard for me to do without without estimating right now because the board relies on the cases coming in from VBA to to work those legacy cases VBA does have a deadline they have set plus we are bringing in the AMA cases and working those and we're balancing those we do expect to be able to tell you a a timeline after February after we start the new process because the legacy will will all the cases then we'll be in AMA and we will better have a better a number a determination of how long it will take us okay so you'll get back to us this committee in February it will be after the February 14th after the February so I'm hoping early spring but as soon as I have it I will report out as I have done with my other responses so please get it to us I appreciate that very much and then secretary Byrne what our VH plans for comparing the performance of the legacy system and new appeals process using a range of goals and measures like timeliness and of course veteran's satisfaction which is so very important so it's my understanding there are and and will be several surveys to inform us going forward with implementing the the new modernization feedback from veterans is key toward everything we do in particular claims and appeals such as this so it's a it's a circle it's a loops or feedback okay as far as can you address the the timeliness as well satisfaction sure from the veteran but timeliness to give me give me a range what's the goal as far as timeliness is concerned in general so I have a general thought of that Jen I think chairman Mason can give us some specifics I think sure both the board and VBA are our monitoring our metrics on both performance quality and timeliness and as we move forward as we brought the sand table before you all in the spring we're starting to plug those numbers in and and adjust those numbers a little bit we we will have timeliness goals for you vba already runs those in the ramp programs with the average of 125 days the Board expects to do the direct docket in an average of 365 days the other two lanes I'm hoping again to get metrics on that once I get into the system the current ramp appeals program at the board is giving me some early data but at this point in time until I start running all five dockets and get that absolutely running and and launched I am not comfortable giving you full data on the timeliness but I will get back to you but we are monitoring all of that and VBA and aboard are collaborating very closely on all of that data and we are running the metrics just just as we will are required to under the section 5 of the MA marry thank you very much I yield back mr. chairman appreciate it discussed are you recognized thank you and thank you for being with us I just want to go back to the veteran experience if we could can you walk us through after this is all online what the veteran experience would be what their choices would be and what the timeframes would be that they can expect for resolution of their claim I can pull out my chart and follow it ma'am but I can assure you that chairman Mason right off the top of her head can walk you through that in very very fine details I'm fine to hear from her I just want the American people to know what veterans can expect so so well first and foremost we are working very closely with the office of veterans experience within the department and working on those surveys we already have surveys launched and we're already receiving satisfaction information back on those we've already started receiving those so that's the first thing we're looking at second thing we've also launched is the appeal status tracker on the VA website to allow veterans to exact to log on and see exactly where their appeal is and exactly where their claim is and provides them feedback where they are so those things are already launched and running both the board and VBA have been very transparent with our numbers on how we're doing and what we're doing both in training programs when mr. McClanahan and I have been out speaking weather together or separately we have provided the timelines for 125 days for VBA is what their expectation is and that's an average we'll continue to monitor that within VBA and then at the board again the direct docket is the 365 Lane we expect to complete those within the 365 3 including a hearing hearings are not hearings as a separate Lane the additional evidence lane which is 90 days additional evidence submission and the hearing lane are going to take a little bit longer the situation with hearings as the board is I currently have 71 thousand veterans in the legacy who have requested hearings and I am working on those I have redistributed my resources and and I expect to announce something very soon with a collaboration with OIT on hearings which will impact the ability of the board to hold more hearings do you have sufficient resources and personnel to process the 71,000 hearings I do it's it's going to take me a minute but we have actually reduced that number we started the year with over 80,000 and we were able to hold 16,000 hearings last year we offered twenty-four thousand veterans either rescheduled or did not appear for approximately nine thousand of those cases this year we expect to offer we've already started but we expect to offer over 34,000 hearing opportunities to date the board has held over five over 4,500 hearings which is ahead of schedule from what we offered last year and we're continuing to do that so it would take somewhere between 2 to 5 years to process the backlog how many new hearings are requested every year right now with the Appeals with the AMA coming in out of the 930 ramped cases the board has received to date 450 approximately 450 of our hearing request so that would have telling me roughly have and that's generally what we've seen that's generally our average is about half request hearings that is something that we are looking and I have already started to change my resource allocation with my judges on how we handle the decisions and the hearings and I expect that will have an impact going forward and as we start to implement those those changes I will be happy to report back to you all on how we're doing again the board does report information on its website on a regular basis usually weekly on how we're doing on the decisions dispatched as well as the hearings held and that is our mission those two things are our mission and that's my job is to make sure that we do them and we get those deliver those results to veterans and and our job is to make sure you have the resources to do that so just trying to do the math in my head it doesn't sound as though you'll be able to process the backlog while you keep up with half of the new cases requesting hearing so I would just recommend to the chair and to the incoming chair next session that we consider additional resources to help you get through this so thank you think gentleman if you yielding mr. Kauffman you recognize Thank You mr. Sherman Sherman Mason the chairwoman Mason the ramp pilot was implemented to test the new appeals process prior to full and and the full implementation your testimony indicates ramp has been successful noting over the past year seventy four thousand three hundred ninety nine appeals were processed using ramp which reduced the legacy Appeals inventory what percent of these ramp appeals meant quality standards specifically how many appeals decisions received a already reviewed to ensure accuracy and identity errors that would warrant retraining for employees so first I'm gonna ask I'm gonna answer the question as to ramp appeals at the board which just started in October and then I'm going to hand it over to mr. McClenahan for the VBA ramp program that started last November because he has that data and he's in charge of that piece as far as ramp appeals at the board we have our quality review system in place and we are running quality review we did quality review in the first 40 ramp appeals that were issued and then since then we've run the statistical standard on that if we we have not yet seen any indications of a need for training or trends there but we are working it closely we are current quality rate at the board for both the the ramp appeals and for board decisions is over 92 percent mr. McClenahan so we we look at quality in a number of different ways in the ramp program keep in mind this is a temporary program so we are really focused on setting up a new quality assurance program for the higher level reviews when we we start that process in February but for ramp we actually did a hundred percent quality review during the training for the 12 stations that are doing the ramp processing in VA in addition to that we have local quality assurance program where is a sample of the work that's being done is is reviewed locally in addition to that we've done for site visits at some of the stations have been processing wrapped longest that included taking samples of claims that were decided and reviewing quality on that basis we are also doing special focus reviews and this was primarily to ensure that because it is a little bit of a cultural change for higher level reviewers in particular that they're following the procedures that we put out for ramp and so those special focused reviews really zeroed in on that so we have a pretty comprehensive program for reviewing the ramp decisions and making sure that they're accurate but I want to point out one of the advantages of the ramp program is once they get a decision they're in the new process so that means that they have that control and the options over there review that they would have after February anyway so if they're still dissatisfied after that decision that they get on an average in 120 days they have all the options and the benefits of the new process that was in the law and to include choosing another option then once they get that decision so really that is the real advantage of opting in through ramp is you get all the benefits of the new system the chairwoman Mason our VBA and BVA insuring and I think part of this was answered ensuring the quality of claims processed using ramp and beam so the beam again was a small-scale program that the board tested to see if our communications and what veterans were understanding and various different organizations from the VSOs as well as our advocates and so we were able to get feedback in from the beam program qualitative feedback and change some of our form letters and respond that way to the feedback so that's the beam portion the board and VBA worked very collaboratively together on our training and our quality review process and and recently in November the board in VBA launched an appeals training initiative that we are working together to provide training to really it's a it's a dual training action we provide some training to VBA and they give us some feedback on what they're seeing with our cases and we just launched that project it's it's got great feedback initially and that's expected that's how we expect to move forward that's the vehicle we're going to use as we move out to process the feedback and the trends that we're seeing as a result of that determine our yield back thank Jim of yielding and mr. Mason if you wouldn't mind would you send us a blank survey one of the surveys so we could both sides of the aisle can look at that we just like to see it absolutely we can get that from the veterans experience office happy to do so thank you mr. O'Rourke II recognized Thank You mr. chairman from the opening testimony it seemed as though the GA Joe was telling us that we weren't ready for implementation in February and based on your recommendations you didn't feel like there was enough time for VA to implement those and you suggest a phase-in approach and then if I heard you correct mr. secretary you feel that the VA is ready and that there's no need to have a phase-in approach so I wonder miss kurta given what you heard from secretary burn and chairwoman Mason whether their answers to our questions so far address your outstanding concerns and whether you agree with them that they're ready to go if not I would love for you to share with us what you think the consequences are if the VA goes without having addressed the legal requirements to performance measures the project management concerns including 117 activities you mentioned there's not a robust schedule to implement those and then the risks which is your fourth point certainly I mean I think that there's nothing here I've heard today that you know surprising we've been talking to the VA folks all along and and you certainly have their perspective on this I would say the biggest risk from our perspective to implementation is the risk that you will once when veterans are faced with five new options which has not been tested before that larger numbers of them will go up for a hearing at the board that is the most resource intensive option and could have implications for the ability of the board to process legacy claims and also to take care of the folks that are now signing up for something new and they were hoping that would get better for them so in terms of mitigating that risk you know we have recommended taking several steps as they can if they feel it continue to fully implement you know articulate expectations for performance so they can monitor against those expectations and see are we meeting goals are we not meeting goals and and then you know even if they delightful implementation of the new process they could allow more time to model test or phase in the board options and develop contingency plans if X outcomes are not what are expected in terms of another sort of big risk area is and we've you know I think the board is alluded to this a little bit this is a large-scale change for everyone involved all the staff all the managers you're hiring new people and change management is complicated business and and can take time it's in critically important to communicate to all the players or the stakeholders what is happening with the change and the stakeholders as well and it has to be it has to be buy-in so you know that can take a little bit of time and I'm not completely sure that the the change management to date has been as robust as it could be and was there another aspect to the question I'm just wondering like if if these outstanding concerns are not addressed and the VA does not take a phase-in approach and implements without being fully ready what what's the the worst that could happen to veterans and one of the things I think I hear you saying is that there may not be resources there and that's following up on miss Custer's questions on some unintended consequences of paths that that veterans may choose and perhaps you know the suggestion is that in the next Congress we appropriate additional resources to meet that demand I wonder secretary Byrne one of one of the concerns raised that seems to be a consistent problem with the VA and I know chairman Arrington has been really good on this issue is the lack of performance measures how to know whether you're successful how you're doing along the way and that was the second outstanding concern from the GAO a VA has not developed measures to assess performance how will you know if you're successful or not so it's a fair question and I think the GAO concerns are fair as well but the the big picture is is that we're offering their veterans choice and control over the appeals process that's sort of unprecedented making it easier and very veteran user user-friendly the the phased in approach I appreciate that comment however ramp is giving us a pretty good picture of how this is going to be implemented and if I could interrupt just I'm out of time if we don't have defined goals we'll never know how we're doing you can say we're giving it our best we're giving veterans lots of options this feels good we've hired a lot of people this is better than what it was but but if I don't know what the target is how can we gauge your performance and hold you accountable so of the concerns raised by Gao that that is the most concerning to me and I hope that you can working with the Jo come up with defined performance measures that we can all hold ourselves accountable we will yield back to the trim thank general fielding miss Radha why can you recognized Thank You mr. chairman and the ranking member thank you also to the panel for being here today my questions for the Honorable Cheryl Mason chairman Mason the secretary has delegated you to you the authority to oversee Appeals reform implementation have you faced any challenges in overseeing implementation given that you do not have line authority over all the different elements of VA that are involved in Appeals reforms such as VBA and oh I and T thank you for your question ma'am the the board the way the the situation works with the board is the board is is the Secretary's designee to handle Appeals from in the department from all the administrations and general counsel and so that's that's under the law where the board sits having said that the board you're correct the board does not have line authority over VBA there's no way I can tell the usb what to do but we work very collaboratively in the department and the one thing I will tell you is the new undersecretary Wilkie and acting secretary Byrne deputy secretary burns we have implemented a very strong governance process where we all come together on a monthly basis discuss all the issues that are before us and so it's a collaborative issue so why I may have point for this it's it's it's a collaboration so if there's a concern on appeals and the VBA side or if there's an issue with a int that's something that the that the Department handles as a governance body it's not just me I just am the driver to make sure that I bring those I those issues to to the governance board a to date I have not had any issues we work very collaboratively together and have done so since I became chairman so how are you ensuring that VA has a comprehensive and cohesive plan to successfully develop and implement the new system well the undersecretary for benefits and I meet every two weeks we discuss specific challenges within the appeal structure and and there's planning I also meet on a regular basis with Ont leadership and we talk about the customer service requirements there and it's the same thing with all you know with VHA I meet with the P – the acting P – as well so I have oversight all that through the secretary and the acting deputy secretary and then my job is to report out if there's any issues but we do have a comprehensive plan that's what you've seen in the 90-day reports that we have sent out the board has had the lead on putting those together but again it's a collaboration we have to work in partnership and we have to take care of all of our customers across the organization and in order to deliver results to veterans Thank You mr. chairman I yield back I think gentlelady for yielding Miss Esther you recognized for five minutes Thank You mr. chairman I would like to raise the question the VSOs have raised with me they've raised concerns the new IT system the case flow q is not fully ready for implementation specifically they've raised concerns that they are unable to view legacy cases through case flow can you provide a specific date by which the VSOs will have access to legacy cases via case law currently we are actually testing the co-located VSOs at the board they do have access at the at the board right now we just rolled that out on a limited basis we're testing that that's part of our phase in as we go forward into January 19 and unfold delivery in February we expect to broaden that that will be more of a phased in process with case flow because there are procedures that did the VSOs have to go through to meet those access requirements that our department requirements so but we are also already working and they do have access in the program now well thank you because I know that's very important in our effort to really comprehensively address issues if they cannot see the VSOs who are on the front line are unable to see the legacy claims then we're not really getting the benefit the the promised benefits of this IT innovation the next question I wanted to address was one that the Chairman referenced at the very beginning where we think it's very important to have these goals than these timelines but we have seen happen with other VA ambitious programs that they have rolled out in an effort to meet a timeline and have thereby lost the trust of the veterans we're here to serve have you considered given the hundred and seventeen items I believe miss kurta mentioned that need to be completed and some of them may be very small about a hundred and seventeen items between January 1st and February 14th is a lot and there'll be a new Congress and lots of questions have you considered delaying that in order to be certain you've done the beta testing you're prepared to do the rollout fully so that we do not lose the goodwill we've been all attempting to regain from veterans that's a very fair question ma'am and I can assure you there has been some robust discussion certainly over the last couple weeks about implementation of various programs and this one in particular this is one that I can tell you that the secretary and I have a lot of confidence in the implementation being met on time the regulations we don't completely control that process it's it's being a value right now so that would be the holdup from an IT perspective my understanding is we are much much further effect we are implementing it I understand we're driving that car right now and that's why from a layman's perspective we the secretary and I have confidence that we're going to be able to implement this on time the caveat would be the regulations but but we have every indication that that's going to be on time as well thank you you mentioned on beam that we we've only had 30 cases go through right now and mr. Bern you indicated that that was being qualitative feedback and yet for the process to fully run out you've you're moving from about 900 cases of which only 30 have gone through what assurance do you have you're going to be in a position again in less than 2 min about two months to be able to have this fully functioning the beam portion fully functioning so that you understand how those cases go through and are ready to implement them across the board so I'll touch on that lightly and then maybe ask the chairman Mason to help me out on that beam as I understand it was a very detailed interview feedback loop process with our veterans to ensure we were delivering to them the control and choice that they've been asking for from the veterans from the VSOs and from with internal as far as the actual implementation that I think those were a little bit apples and oranges right the implementation is about the regulations being available on time about having the IT solution performing and we have a pretty high degree of confidence and and and I understand we may be all be a little gun-shy about the actual execution but in this case there's a pretty high degree of cut there is a high degree of confidence that we'll be able to execute as predicted in February well it has to be more precise whether you've been able to incorporate that qualitative detailed feedback from 30 cases whether you feel that's sufficiently broad to incorporate it and have it ready to go and that is four ways we haven't mammal incorporated thank you we have incorporated that feedback already in our form letters and actually the in OD form for the board specifically and as as far as so that beam was enough for us to get that initial information but then we also had the ramp program running at VBA as well as what the board took over and that did give us continue to get some information on top of the ve o surveys thank gentlelady for yielding mr. Pollock when you're recognized for five minutes thank you very much mr. chairman I appreciate it and I appreciate the great bipartisan work over the last the last couple years on this committee I represent the rural part of the state of Maine now some people think that all of Maine is rural but that's not true and healthcare closer to home is really a critical issue for our veterans up in rural Maine and I'm delighted that all this work has been done such that our veterans now the law of the land can get there their health care closer to home that initiative actually started with a pilot program mr. chairman our Maine was one of five places in the country up in Caribou Maine where the arch program started and it was rolled out nationally and now we're here with these nice folks before us talking about this problem we've had for a number of years with the appeals backlog and you've had a couple examples of pilot programs to roll this out and see what it works so I'd like to ask you mr. Berner and you can delegate that to anybody else that's beside you if if that's more effective but tell us what have you learned in your two pilot programs just like we have learned up in northern Maine the pilot program that led to the mission Act in the choice program here that's been rolled out nationally what have you learned that you can learn that you can share with us such that when you roll this out big time across the across the system you won't you'll have a better success rate it may be it if I may miss Mason be is specific as you can please sure I think I'm gonna start and I'm gonna then delegate it to mr. McClenahan because we run two pieces of that really what the boards learned primarily is how important that veteran feedback is and to listen to our stakeholders because they have had some very and you have a way to get that feedback very easy user friendly for our veterans such that they can log on however they do it's they can get back to you very quickly very easily so you can assess that yes we actually with the new VA experienced customer surveys we can we can receive that feedback immediately and how about folks that live in rural Maine that don't have access to the Internet how do you do that I think they can do surveys both electronically and via mail I would have to check on that one though sir that'd be great if you can get back to me on that I'm gonna hand the rest of that answer over to mr. McClenahan cuz I know he has more yes ma'am sure so ramp really helped us because we've actually received then this goes back to the previous question 34 we've actually done 34,000 decisions in the ramp program so it wasn't just the feedback we were getting from the small scale beam program but it was all of those decisions that we were making so we were getting feedback from representatives of veterans from veterans from our own employer and what have you learned that you can share with us sure we've learned how to improve the procedures that we're launching permanently next in February be specific give me an example please sure a higher level reviewer has to do a in some cases an informal conference with a veteran we received a lot of feedback about how to make that process better and improve the scheduling of those there's a lot of those type of right now just on average sir how much time in the legacy system currently today if a veteran has an appeal because he's lost hearing and he gets back the decision from from you nice folks that it's not what he expects it to be or what it should be how long does it now take to go through that process on average on average three to seven years three to seven years how long do you think it'll take with this new system that you folks are implementing that we've given a lot of money to do it's designed for early resolution so an average of 125 days in each of the two VBA lanes and then at the borders Tara Mason has said the fastest opportunity there is an average of one year okay so you're gonna you expect go from anywhere from three to seven years to roughly four months to one year god bless you right now behind you hope you do it now a veterans deserve this right now we're processing ramp claims in an average of about 120 days okay okay how are you folks getting the VSOs involved because so many of our veterans on the ground touch our veterans service organizations on a regular basis how are you bringing them into the fold such that they can help you roll this out effectively get the word out and keep our veterans well informed how are you doing that so this goes back to the Chairman's opening statement take it back to March 2016 we started this by getting all stakeholders in the room together that's how we did this okay in a and are they doing their job to help us with this absolutely okay they've been with us every step of the way to include great promoting ramp and everything else Thank You mr. Byrne I'm going to ask my last question quickly here you mentioned you folks have mentioned hiring a bunch of people to make sure this works smoothly and that's all great I like to remind you you have 285,000 me I think it's 385 thousand people at the at the Veterans Administration can you find any people internally to do this so we don't have to spend taxpayer money to go outside and do this all over again you were you were able to do that to a certain degree I think we were that you had to hire for this project came from the inside could I have chairman Mason for that specific yeah of course we we looked at okay so you have two things you're gonna get back to me with right yes great thank you very much you back my time thank you good luck everybody there's there's a New York minute and then there's a Maine minute and those are different and now yield to mr. Correa Thank You mr. chairman to the panel the application implementation of the the Appeals Modernization Act how are you including the VSOs in that process so I'm just going to touch it briefly the VSOs were part of the ground floor and in in coming up with control and and choice for the veterans it was a lot of that they were the driving factor in this and we continue to have feedback with them in this process and their service representatives are also a key part of a cue describe I you're actually getting feedback and implementing that feedback that I would have to kick over the chair mr. Shi we have regular meetings sir both both the secretary has regular meetings and receives feedback the Chairman the USB we sometimes do joint meetings with VBA but we are in we are interacting with our VSOs on a regular basis at the board the board has co-located VSOs that actually sit with us that handle the cases and we meet with them on a regular basis as well so we are constantly taking feedback and constantly taking the pulse from our VSOs moving forward do you see that to continue to be the case absolutely without them any VSO is here today yes yes are we okay satisfaction yes no good can't read sign language are we okay thumbs up thank you very much mr. chair I yield thank gentleman for yielding mr. Higgins you recognized four or five minutes Thank You mr. chairman thank you ladies gentlemen for your service to your country mr. McClenahan thank you for your service your country sir understand your Army veteran I have constant communications with the veterans that I serve in south Louisiana and the primary the primary complaint regarding the appeals process and out of New Orleans have they're looking at appeals from 2014 and 15 certainly hundreds of backlog Appeals cases and most of the hearings there's a requirement for the veteran to attend a hearing in New Orleans these guys have transportation problems man they have deteriorating medical conditions and in some cases mental challenges certainly financial and transportation challenges their their their hearing dates get moved and shifted and it's hard enough for them to get to the sea barcode or the VA medical facility we're in we have invested tremendous amounts of the people's treasure in order to completely modernize these facilities and my district I have two brand new sea box they're beautiful incredible state-of-the-art technology well I don't understand as a veteran myself why veteran will be required to drive 200 250 miles to a hearing the when it's hard enough for them to get 20 miles to a sea by Accords VA medical facility yet we've invested incredible amounts of treasure in these facilities to make them tell a capable and the decisions made about their appeals that primarily medical in nature so the I'm told that the VA states that their IT systems in the appeals in the appeals arena does not communicate well with their IT systems in a medical arena and this is this is is just unacceptable to me as a matter as a veteran and as a congressman would you please address that sir as a veteran yourself yes sir and thank you chairman Mason is actually doing a lot of work in this area the hearings that you're referring to our board hearings that the board judges handle we do the scheduling for those right now but she's doing a lot of legal questions I agree but they're based upon medical conditions are there not 100% of the time that's generally correct yes based on medical exams that are done in the initial decision process and then if there's an appeal to the board one of the things the board looks at is do we fulfill our duty to assist the veteran in developing their claim which includes providing them a medical examination thank you for that answer I asked for I ask generally is there a commitment can we look for a commitment from the from the VA to integrate IT systems and to and to enhance the abilities of veterans to attend their hearings more locally at at VA facilities medical facilities see box etc is on the horizon can we look at that yes sir it is on the immediate horizon Thank You Madame that's encouraging I have questions I promise to get to a secretary burn understand you also serve as a VA general as a VA general counsel yes sir and thank you for your service sir commander correct you command to burn correct lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Roger that thank you for your service what's the current status of regulatory changes you'll need to implement the appeals reform the current regulatory process involves another component of the executive branch and that is where it's under review right now and we have expectations that it's going to come out on time and be published sufficiently before the February 14th deadline but we're tracking it and if we have any indications that it's going to come out early or late we will certainly let this body now your your optimism your tone has been encouraging it's it's it's uplifting to us to hear that's that sort of a can-do attitude we recognize what you guys are dealing with is incredibly difficult I have a follow-up question for you sir well the secretary is still certified next month that the final rule is not yet published yes sir he will certify well the secretary is still certified next month yes sir final rule is not yet published correct I take that as a yes yes sir and finally even if the final regulations are completed prior to implementation how can you ensure the VA disseminates that information and conducts training for staff on the new regulations and forms which is a nightmare in the VA that you know get into your head wrapped around these new forms whose very complex prior to the effective date of the law so I'm going to kick this over but I hope the training is already under way I hope that's the answer what we're gonna hear that is the answer you're gonna hear that training has already been underway for some time at the board and I believe VBA mr. McLennan can take that but the board has ongoing training on a regular basis for both the new law as well as RIT changes as well as the and we're also working with our VSOs in those areas as well thank you madam for your response but to chairman ru thank general for yielding mr. Cano you recognized Thank You mr. chairman secretary Byrne and chairman Mason regarding legacy claims could you discuss how we won't leave these people behind we're talking about the legacy understand one main but legacy claims right go ahead mr. secretary I believe chairman Mason is going to tell you that legacy that we're going to balance the resources that we have but but processing and legacy claims is a priority to reduce that backlog that's correct sir the the department made a commitment in March of 2016 when we started this process that led to the Appeals Modernization Act passing that we would prioritize the legacy cases and we are keeping that commitment we at the board and I believe it VBA can't speak for mr. McClanahan on this one of it it's my understanding that they're also prioritizing those at the board specifically the case flow q program is already in user testing the algorithm program which has a was built for us by digital services that has a prioritization piece in it that prioritizes those legacy cases over the AMA but the direct docket is the next level yes so we know what resources it's going to take to complete our legacy appeals as well as work the new system or separately allocating resources to each of those and will adjust as necessary go forward okay but well to both of you and chair Mason have you have you made efforts to meet with the Union during the discussion of implementation of new regulations surrounding the Appeals Modernization Act the the Union at the board the union representative we regularly meet with the Union the leadership team it's not always me it's sometimes my leadership team within my other the union has been involved in our training process and is always a partner at the table to discuss how we're rolling those out but there are management pieces that go to that the management can make the decisions on and we give the note the union the notification as required same answer all the way back from when we implemented ramp all the way through to what we're doing today we've kept the Union apprised of what we're doing yes so I mean you would say it's fairly regular weekly monthly it's usually monthly to quarterly depending on what the union request is okay have you incorporated any of their suggestions from these quarterly or monthly meetings more the comments that the Union submitted during the proposed rulemaking yes we we looked at all comments from our employees our employees all gave feedback on the process when we spoke with them specifically I don't know that we used we used anything in the rulemaking on that because that was an inter in internal agency piece but we did discuss what the comments were mr. McClenahan yeah so usually the unions concern is the impact of employees when we implement major initiatives like this so yes we have fully advised them of that they've told us of their concerns about implementation and tried to address those as best we could what assurances are you giving the frontline employees that they will have adequate time to adjust to the new procedures and regulations as they're being implemented and that they're not unfairly dinged during the implementation and immediately thereafter well at the board we rolled out new production standards this October we actually met with our union partners in August of September in preparation for Appeals modernization and part of that change was to measure allow attorneys to measure their production on the number of issues they do per decision and which is we have will report we report but the number of decisions the board does but as well as well as the number of issues under Appeals modernization and training there's also a training piece that is part of our union agreement that there they get a certain piece of time that doesn't count towards production and training and I can't speak for the same in VBA when we implement something like this usually there's an acclamation period for employees to get used to the new procedures I just want to point out though the law does not change how the entitlement to benefits and how we process those claims it's really a process change rather than changing the way that they're used to making decisions based on the entitlement that veterans have but nevertheless you you've you're you're representing to me that that there's adequate time for the employees to adjust as you say acclimate yes that's always the case to the new regulatory and procedural environment I think I'm not going to take the main minute I'm just going to go back so I'm gonna take a point of personal privilege here and thank some members of this committee before everybody gets gone mike coffman of a classmate of mine veteran of both Marine Corps and the US Army he made one good choice at the US Army all due deference to Colonel Byrne Mike thank you for your service all these years on the committee and the things you've done for folks in Denver with a Denver VA you stayed on that thank you so much for that and miss esti you will be leaving the congress porn it's been a pleasure working with you you've had very very positive things and intuitive things that you've done for not only constituents in your district but across the entire country so thank you for that and I tried to get before mr. o'roarke escaped to thank him for his work on the committee he has been terrific certainly has a passion of the people in El Paso and the people he represents and I want to thank all three of you who won't be here next next term to work on veterans issues I know what's near and dear to your heart me personally thank each and every one of you a general bergman I now yield five minutes it's okay to be a Marine though right even though we you know we we'd like to think that mr. Kauffman succeeded so successfully in the army because of his basic training in the Corps thank you everyone we'll keep this to the point at hand but speaking of veterans you know and in the first District of Michigan Michigan is a state has a very high percentage of men and women who've served in our veterans and in the first District of Michigan we have almost double a percentage of veterans as do other districts in Michigan so you know it's been it's been an honor these first two years to represent the veterans all the veterans in the district and we're not getting any younger and the point of that is has there been any consideration in the appeals process to prioritize older veterans because of where they are in the time in their life actually sir thank you for the question that's a good point actually the board does have an advance on the docket process already in place the veterans set is 75 or older it's automatically flagged to go into that bin and we work those cases first and our new algorithm the advance on the docket cases are in it all those are all in the prioritization regardless of whether they're legacy or whether they're AMA the advance on the docket also applies to veterans who have terminal health issues as well as financial issues and this past year on my own motion I advanced cases on the docket for before the hurricanes as well as the typhoon and the Marianas Islands and we are releasing a statement I believe by the end of the week that will address the California fires and the Alaska earthquake so we do actually advance cases for those veterans and as veterans reach that age it's it's an automatic flight okay is there something they have to fill out or is it just automatically because of the information they provide no your ages and they're it's automatically then put into these or for age it's automatically flagged in are now you know commute communication is not what said it's what's heard and an understanding of words written may or may not translate into the veteran understanding when they receive a letter and I I've received some interesting letters from government agencies addressing my senior status and different things that I have no clue what actually the point of the letter is okay and I'm not going to get into details and I think even asking a couple of other folks what does this mean there was some head scratching going on so I know the VA I believe has made an effort to make more understandable written communication so when that veteran receives it they can actually understand what the point of the letter is would anyone care to give me an example of success in that yes I actually I'm happy to point out that that's a priority for the undersecretary he's actually has a program that he's running now where he has an individual leading a review of the letters that we use to do exactly that make them more understandable so does that include not to cut in so does that include feedback as we talked about the feedback loop there's been put in is that does that include feedback sofa yes you know you get so we can look at the the success of a letter or successive phrases is that something that's visible to us as a committee to see where the change has been made yes and in fact the model that we use for Appeals modernization is something that we're trying to use further in in the department but in particular in VBA getting the input of Veterans Service Organizations veterans and getting their perspective on whether it really is understandable and then even at the department what level the veterans experience office is very helpful and focused on that particular issue we have survey results currently from from the veterans experience office at least at the board level that we get on a regular basis that tells us how the judges are communicating at hearings how our decisions are being received by veterans in that communication piece so we're looking at that regularly at the board it's one thing and I know my time is coming short here the it's one thing to provide an opportunity for feedback it's the second step of course is taking that feedback you know and truly evaluating that to then turn the whatever it is you're trying to accomplish into a better document or a better communication thank you and I yield back thank Jim for yielding chairman Arrington you're recognized Thank You mr. chairman first I want to associate myself with your commendation to our colleagues miss Estie and mr. Kauffman it's been a delight serving with you and and wish you the very best and Godspeed and thank you all for your good work on the panel and it sounds like we're making some progress a guy who held this seat that I serve in three decades ago his name's Kent Hance he used to tell a story about a public school teacher in demet Texas it's a little town like a lot of little towns in my district farming and ranching town he had a public school teacher named miss little page and she taught accounting and she kept it real simple she said in accounting you have money coming in and you have money coming out and if you have more money going out than you have coming in you broke and I want to apply miss little pages a principle of accounting to this discussion because you have incoming cases and then you have resolved or outgoing cases and if you got more incoming cases and you got outgoing you broke the system's broke and we cannot continue with the backlog of over 400,000 the whole point of this was to have a more timely resolution of these claims so let me just go through the numbers here make sure my demet / plain view / West Texas math is working appropriately the ramp claims let me just start there the ramp and anybody can answer this who's the expert in ramp but it ramp deals with two of the three lanes correct and the anticipation of the pilot was that we'd have more people I think that signed up for ramp saying that they would go to those two lanes I think it was like sixteen percent versus forty percent so not as many people signed up for the or signed on maybe to the two lanes at ramps testing is that a fair statement it is we did not know what we were going to get we're at about eighteen percent right now opting in and we've seen it go up every month that we've been running the program one might believe in the case where you didn't get as many on the two lanes that ramps testing that you'd have more going into that third Lane which is the board appeals is that an accurate assumption or fair assumption that's possible that we deliberately design the ramp program not to include that Lane because we don't just want to trade a long process that's broken now for those people going to the board we wanted early resolution and we're doing that quickly in those two vva lanes so so you have buy-in November 30th there were four hundred and twenty thousand pending appeals about a hundred and thirty of those thousand appeals were with the board miss Mason and my understanding is that in by 2024 it'll be four hundred thousand pending I'm reading let's see here the board projected the inventory of more than double 20 2017 and 2024 from a hundred fifty fifty thousand to around four hundred thousand is that not accurate I believe it's what we're doing in that with that guesstimate was and that was from more than a year ago so that was before I became chairman so I'm not sure with let's just say – let's just say it's an approximate number but 400,000 here's my bigger point you guys have had a better number in terms of resolutions at about eighty five thousand in in one year but the incoming is ninety plus thousand correct well this past year we actually only received about sixty nine thousand okay do we expect it'll be ninety every year my understanding that that was a pretty good round average or rolling average over the last several years that's ninety thousand you're correct okay so that if that continues and this is just an anomaly this year of sixty something then we'll just always be in a deficit mode and so you will never get enough to you won't have the capacity to receive the incoming I don't know what you're gonna do with the legacy as mister Takano mention it what do you do with the backlog are we ever going to get at the backlog will we ever have the capacity not to just meet the demand but exceed it that's the only way we're going to get at the at that that bigger legacy number of four hundred plus thousand I'll just stop because my time has expired but if the chairman would indulge me and allow them to answer that a long question sir excellent questions I think the the one factor that you're not considering is in February we shut off the flow to the legacy process so one other factor to consider is every year we received more than a hundred and sixty thousand new legacy appeals that's what we've been receiving so the fact that we are at now four hundred twenty thousand we were at about four hundred and seventy five thousand while we were receiving that constant flow of 160,000 new appeals every year that is significant that we brought that number down and when you shut the flow off in February you will have no more going to legacy and that's really the key that that's missing in that discussion is that's what the law does for us it shuts the flow off to that broken system and you're absolutely correct it's broken so just considering that factor we believe that we and VBA will get through our legacy Appeals in 2020 which is a vast improvement about well over what we were talking about a couple years ago the wild card for the board is they get their appeals from us so we resolve what we can first veterans chooses to appeal to them so the board's relying on what is flowing from us to them in addition to that we have flow back from the board even though the board decided 85,000 which was great many of those are remands back to VBA where we have to do more work and that's kind of the key to what's broken in the current process it's that constant churn back back and forth between VBA and the board the the committee's work shut that off in February at least a good portion of it and the other thing is I want to go back to the stats you quoted I don't believe those stats took into consideration the resources that Congress gave the board and FY 17 that allowed us to hire more people and allowed us to increase our resources which you saw the payout from began to sell the payout from an FY 18 with those 85,000 and we're going to continue so that's going to change what the estimate is we're going to give you a new number but I can't get there until I get to it'll be after February but you will get a new number sir there's a Texas minute right there well I I see mr. Connor you have any closing comments yes just briefly mr. Chairman I I thank all the the witnesses for coming forward and I've met with some of you in private I am cautiously optimistic that the implementation will be successful and that the work that was done by this committee on a bipartisan basis to lay the groundwork for where you are the work that my colleague ms St did is the ranking member and inheriting from ranking member dina Titus and the whole way in which the VSOs worked together and this committee worked together mr. chairman this is a point of pride for me and I are our small talk up here indicates that both of us have a cautiously good feeling about where this is going I'm happy to hear that IT the work that you have done with digital services seems to have borne good fruit so I do want to say my my farewells to mr. Kaufman I do admire the work that you have done sir under my presumptive chairmanship you can guarantee that the Denver will not be forgotten and that we will and we care about all the veterans in all the communities and we're gonna make sure that all these medical centers all get up to snuff Ms St what a pleasure it has been to be your colleague and it was it was a great note of sadness that I see you departing your enormous ly talented but I know that you're gonna be contributing to our country and our nation and you'll continue to contribute to your community and of course mr. O'Rourke he's not here but enough said about him there's a lot already being said about him and I have a feeling we haven't heard the last of him here and what a special sacred bipartisan space this is mr. chairman I hope I know we're going to continue this relationship that we have and I will do my utmost to preserve the traditions of this committee so thank you well the gentleman yield I will yield yes I'm excited and looking forward to the new leadership here and my understanding is that I'm looking at one of the new leaders of this committee but I want to say something about the current leader as we wrap this session up this is for many of us on the committee our first term in Congress and I did not anticipate I would have the privilege of serving on this committee and I certainly didn't fully appreciate how productive this committee would be and I think a lot of that is the bipartisan nature but it has to be stewarded by the captain of the ship I mean it it trickles down from the top and the leader of this committee sets the tone and I just want to say mr. chairman and if ranking member waltz were here I'd commend him as well but chairman thank you for your tremendous leadership for for all of us to lead us through one of the most it'd have to be I don't know the numbers but to pass 80 veteran related bills in the house almost virtually all of them bipartisan coming out of this committee and to have almost 30 veteran related reforms major initiatives like the mission Act and like the new forever GI bill etc etc like this appeals process I can't find another space and spot in place in the United States Congress that has been more productive and more a bleed and led in a way that reflects not just well on your colleagues but on the character of the men and women who wore the uniform who we're trying to serve so that's so you set a great example for me and I think for my freshman class and all of us on this committee thank you for your leadership and thank you for your service not just to our veterans but to our entire nation over this last two years in 115 Congress thank you very much appreciate your kind words I do Jody thanks very much for that it's much appreciated and again you've heard me thank the committee profusely for what they've done also only thank the people who are here today you all have done a great job and we're excited about doing this because I can promise you every member up here probably the most things that with individual cases that we work on at home or veterans cases and if you we have one two maybe more people in our on our staff that work on those and most of them are appeals or something related to the VA and I want to thank you all for getting this up and ready to run I think it's going to work and I think the ramp program really did give us a good trial run and again as I said it to opening I've heard any number of people come up and say hey Doc this this a ramp program really got me my case adjudicated very rapidly mr. Higgins I want to thank you I think it's a great idea with teleconferencing I think that makes absolute sense if you've got the capacity in the CBOC why you couldn't schedule that with with a veteran right there in their hometown that makes absolute sense they don't have to travel long distances it's more much more difficult for them to travel many other good ideas we flushed out today and I look forward to and one of the things I think I learned with this bill was to to continue to bring the the stakeholders back in every few months and go over where we are that maybe was a mistake in some of the bills and we didn't do we're doing that with Mission if we're here next week we'll be doing a mission hearing next week next Wednesday afternoon so I well I think we've learned a lot from you all and kudos to you off with a good work you've done I appreciate it and we look forward to going live next year mr. Coughlin we've been a retired physician was extremely important in terms of bringing that knowledge and sharing that knowledge and your experiences with this committee I think is very important and of course we all know the acronym for army stands for ain't ready for the Marines yet but we won't go there I thank you gentlemen I won't yield any more time to that gentleman I was about to dismiss this before we got done here no further questions thank you all for being here ask unanimous consent that the written statements provided for the record be placed into the hearing record without objection so ordered and also ask unanimous consent that all members have five legislative days in which to revise and extend their remarks and include extraneous material here no objection hearing is adjourned

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

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