As many disabled veterans have heard by now, the President signed into Law the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 ("The Act") which is an attempt by Congress and the VA to speed up the backlogged Disability Hearing and Appeals Process.
The Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) rolled out RAMP on November 2nd, 2017, which is the first chance for disabled veterans to enter the new appeals process outlined in "The Act".
"The Act", signed into law on August 23, 2017, will not take full effect until February 2019. But the new program – "RAMP" (Rapid Appeals Modernization Program), will allow some veterans currently appealing their claims the right to participate in some, BUT NOT ALL parts of the new appeals system.
After "The Act" became law, VA immediately began the 18-month implementation of the new process. The new system is intended to streamline the VA’s current appeals process (now called "legacy appeals process"), which has received much criticism for its inefficiency and excessive wait-times.
By February 2019, all appeals should be processed under the new system. For now, though, veterans who want to appeal a VA decision can choose to remain in the legacy appeals process or participate in RAMP.
All of these new, old, and in-between systems are very confusing, even to experienced representatives and veterans. What follows is an attempt to explain exactly what is happening:
The "Legacy appeals process" is nothing more than the current VA appeals process.
All veterans who have already filed appeals are participating in this process. Veterans who are just now getting ready to appeal a denial, will be placed into the "legacy appeals process", UNLESS they are allowed to participate in the RAMP program.
The new appeals process ("The Act") presents a "three-lane appeals process" that will not take full effect until AT LEAST February 2019.
You can read all about how the new process will work and see it in visual form on this webpage.
RAMP (Rapid Appeals Modernization Program) is the "in-between", and optional appeals process that allows certain veterans filing their first appeal to participate in two out of three of the “lanes” that will make up the new appeals system
Participation in RAMP is voluntary, and in fact, the VA is currently only "inviting" select disabled veterans to participate. However, disabled veterans who do elect to participate in the RAMP program will not be able to return to the legacy appeals process, EVER. In other words, can you opt in to the new appeals process but you cannot opt out.
Veterans who submitted a claim, and have been denied (for the first time) by VA, can choose participate in RAMP. The program allows participants to have their decisions reviewed in the "Higher-Level" or "Supplemental Claim" review lanes outlined in "The Act".
The "Higher-Level Review Lane" allows a "higher-up" (more senior) VA official to review and maybe overturn previous decisions based on a difference of opinion, or return the decision for correction. But the veteran cannot submit new evidence to be reviewed.
The "Supplemental Claim Lane" allows veterans to submit new evidence in support of their claim. This is the only lane in which VA has a duty to assist veterans in finding or obtaining evidence.
Veterans participating in RAMP will NOT be able to use the third lane in the new appeals process, meaning they cannot submit their claims directly to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA).
IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THAT If a disabled veteran’s claim is again denied during participation in RAMP (either at the Higher-Level review or Supplemental Claim lane), then that disabled veteran will only be able to appeal to the BVA after February 2019, which is when the new appeals process is supposed to be in full effect.
The “Compassionate Allowance Initiative (CAL) was established in 2008 to fast track claimants through the disability determination process who are likely to be approved because they have certain eligible medical conditions. This was an excellent process, in theory.
But, for those disabled individuals who DO NOT have an attorney experienced in Social Security Disability (SSDI) or SSI Disability (SSI), qualifying for CAL is hit and miss at best.
However, the Social Security Administration (SSA) DOES NOT have a formal or systematic approach for identifiying certain medical conditions for CAL. SSA has in recent years instead relied on advocates for individuals seeking disability benefits due to certain diseases and disorders to bring these conditions to its attention. SSA therefore, may overlook disabling conditions for individuals who have no advocates, potentially resulting in individuals with these conditions not receiving expedited processing. Further, SSA does not have clear, consistent criteria for designating conditions for potential CAL inclusion, which is inconsistent with federal internal standards. As a result, the SSA lack key information about how to recommend conditions for inclusion on the CAL list.
To identify disability claims for expedited CAL processing, SSA primarily relies on software that searches for key words in claims. However, if claimants include incorrect or misspelled information in their claims, the software is hindered in its ability to flag all claimants with CAL conditions or may flag claimants for CAL processing that should not be flagged. SSA has guidance for disability determination services (DDS) staff on how to manually correct errors made by the software, but the guidance does not address when such corrections should occur (see flow chart below). Without clear guidance on when to make manual changes, DDS examiners may continue to take actions that are not timely and may hinder expedited processing for appropriate claims, and this can also impact the accurate tracking of CAL claims.
SSA has taken some steps to ensure the accuracy and consistency of decisions on CAL claims, including developing detailed descriptions of CAL conditions, known as impairment summaries. These summaries help examiners make decisions about whether to allow or deny a claim.
However, nearly one-third of the summaries are 5 or more years old. Experts and advocates that GAO spoke to suggested that summaries should be updated every 1 to 3 years. This leaves SSA at risk of making disability determinations using medically outdated information. In addition, GAO found that SSA does not leverage data it collects to assess the accuracy and consistency of CAL adjudication decisions. Without regular analyses of available data SSA is missing an opportunity to ensure the accuracy and consistency of CAL decision-making.
SSA in October 2008 implemented CAL to fast track individuals with certain conditions through the disability determination process by prioritizing their disability benefit claims. Since then, SSA has expanded its list of CAL conditions from 50 to 225. GAO was asked to review SSA's implementation of CAL.
This report examines the extent to which SSA has procedures for (1) designating CAL conditions, (2) identifying claims for CAL processing, and (3) ensuring the accuracy and consistency of CAL decisions. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance; analyzed SSA data on disability decisions for CAL claims from fiscal years 2009 through 2016 and on CAL claims with manual actions in fiscal year 2016; reviewed a nongeneralizable sample of 74 claim files with fiscal year 2016 initial determinations; and interviewed medical experts, patient advocates, and SSA officials in headquarters and six DDS offices selected for geographic dispersion and varied CAL caseloads.
GAO is making eight recommendations including that SSA develop a process to systematically gather information on potential CAL conditions, communicate criteria for designating CAL conditions, clarify guidance for manual corrections on CAL claims, update CAL impairment summaries, and use available data to ensure accurate, consistent decision-making. SSA agreed with GAO's recommendations.
Veterans can now go online and order their new identification cards, FREE to ALL Veterans.
Up until now, millions of veterans have been unable to document their service unless they carry around some of their official military records.
To request an ID card, veterans must visit www.vets.gov, click on “Apply for Printed Veteran ID Card” on the bottom left of the page and sign in or create an account.
When ordering online, veterans will need to upload a copy of a valid government issued ID (drivers license/passport), a copy of a recent photograph to be displayed on the card and will need to provide service-related details. Once ordered, the Veteran ID Card will be printed and mailed directly to the veteran.
Before this change in the law, the VA provided Veteran ID cards only to those service members who served at least 20 years in the Armed Forces or received care from the VA for a service-connected disability. Other veterans had to carry a paper DD-214 document to prove their military status. As all veterans know, the DD214 contains sensitive personal information including social security numbers and service details. This put veterans at needless risk for identity theft if they lost or misplaced their documents.
The new identification card will also provide employers looking to hire veterans with an easier way to verify an employee’s military service. Veterans who apply for a card should receive it within 60 days and can check delivery status of their cards at www.vets.gov . A digital version of the ID card will be available online by mid-December.
Veterans can also call the Vets.Gov Help Desk at 1-855-574-7286 if they are having difficulties with the online process.