SHAHEEN, AYOTTE CALL FOR INVESTIGATION INTO BOARD OF VETERANS APPEALS BACKLOG

In letter to VA Secretary McDonald, Senators call for comprehensive, independent investigation Urge steps to improve appeals process and reduce wait times for veterans

September 17, 2014

(Washington, DC) – U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) are calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to launch an independent investigation into allegations of mismanagement at the Board of Veterans Appeals that have contributed to significant wait times for veterans seeking appeals claims.

Shaheen and Ayotte’s letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald comes after a senior attorney at the Board of Veterans Appeals made allegations at a recent House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing that described an organization plagued by “corruption and blatant disregard for our nation’s veterans” and “a toxic management system that uses a culture of fear and intimidation to attain its goals.” The official also described efforts at the VA to cover-up delays in the appeals process and alter records to protect bonuses.

“These new claims suggest an alarming disregard for the welfare of our nation’s veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA),” the Senators wrote of the allegations. “To address the significant problems identified with the Board of Veterans Appeals, we urge you to act swiftly and launch a comprehensive, independent investigation of these allegations.”

The Senators continued, “We also encourage you to take immediate steps to improve the appeals process and reduce veteran wait times. For example, the VA must make better use of its Decision Review Officers (DRO) at the Regional Office level. The Manchester and White River Junction Regional Offices, both of which serve New Hampshire, are two of [the] most underserved offices in the country. As a result, New Hampshire veterans face disproportionate wait times before their cases are ever referred to the Board of Veterans Appeals. We must permanently address this inequity by requiring a minimum number of DROs in each Regional Office.”

Shaheen and Ayotte, both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have worked extensively to address mismanagement issues at the VA and expand access to health care options for veterans. Earlier this year, they worked to include a provision in bipartisan VA reform legislation that allows New Hampshire veterans the option to seek care from non-VA providers if they live more than 20 miles from the nearest full-service VA hospital. Shaheen and Ayotte also backed provisions in the bill to improve oversight and transparency at the VA.

The full text of the letter is below.

Dear Secretary McDonald:

We write to express our deep concern regarding allegations made this week by a senior attorney at the Board of Veterans Appeals during a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. These new claims suggest an alarming disregard for the welfare of our nation’s veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

As you know, the Board of Veterans Appeals case backlog is well-documented. The current average wait time for a VA appeal is three years. We both have raised this specific issue with the VA on numerous occasions in recent years, as there are several New Hampshire veterans who have waited more than five years for resolution of their claims.

Prior to this week’s testimony, delays at the Board of Veterans Appeals were generally attributed to the dramatic rise in claims over the past several years.  From 2011 to 2015, the number of cases received by the Board increased from 47,700 to an estimated 72,700 by the end 2015, an increase of 52 percent.

To address that challenge, we have worked to improve the efficiency of the appeals system and increase the Board’s resources.

We are very concerned that public confidence in efforts to reform the Board of Veterans Appeals could be undermined by the same type of fundamental incompetence we saw recently throughout the VA’s health services systems.

Specific allegations of misconduct presented to the House Veterans Affairs Committee include systemic leadership failures, blatant disregard for timeliness requirements under Title 38, and the falsification of records.  In one case, completed claims reportedly sat on a manager’s desk for hundreds of days awaiting approval.  Lawyers also reported pressure to rush through cases in order to meet performance goals regardless of the potential impact on a veteran’s rights.

To address the significant problems identified with the Board of Veterans Appeals, we urge you to act swiftly and launch a comprehensive, independent investigation of these allegations.

We also encourage you to take immediate steps to improve the appeals process and reduce veteran wait times.  For example, the VA must make better use of its Decision Review Officers (DRO) at the Regional Office level.  The Manchester and White River Junction Regional Offices, both of which serve New Hampshire, are two of most underserved offices in the country.  As a result, New Hampshire veterans face disproportionate wait times before their cases are ever referred to the Board of Veterans Appeals.  We must permanently address this inequity by requiring a minimum number of DROs in each Regional Office.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter and your continued work on behalf of our nation’s veterans.

Sincerely,

Jeanne Shaheen                                                                                                 Kelly Ayotte

United States Senator                                                                                         United States Senator