STATEMENT OF RICHARD B. STANDEFER,
ACTING CHAIRMAN, BOARD OF VETERANS' APPEALS
SUBCOMMITTEE ON BENEFITS
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
June 10, 1998
Good morning, Mr. Chairman. It is a pleasure to be with you and other Subcommittee members and staff to discuss the operations of the Board of Veterans' Appeals.
In preparing for this hearing, I had occasion to review the Board’s testimony before this Subcommittee in February 1994, a little over four years ago. We were testifying then in connection with our budget request.
At that time, Mr. Chairman, the Board’s average response time was on its way to 781 days. We decided only 22,000 cases. We were still deciding those cases with three-member panels. Our backlog of cases stood at 47,000, and was on its way to 60,000. We were losing our most experienced Board members at an alarming rate to Administrative Law Judge positions.
I recall that former Chairman Slattery asked us in early 1994 what it would take to return in three years to the "good old days" of 1992, when the response time was 240 days. Frankly, Mr. Chairman, that seemed a nearly unreachable goal.
But today, I’m pleased to report that the Board’s response time is down to around 250 days. Our backlog is less than 30,000 cases. We are retaining our Board members.
What’s behind this remarkable success? A number of remarkable people.
o This Subcommittee has been outstanding in its support of the appellate rights of veterans and their families. You gave us the legislative tools we desperately needed, particularly the authority to have decisions made by single members, the authority to conduct hearings by electronics means, and the restoration of pay equity between Board members and administrative law judges. You championed the Board in budget negotiations, enabling us to increase the number of decision-makers.
o Our partners in the veterans service organizations provided the Board with unparalleled support. As you know, Mr. Chairman, 85% of our appellants are represented by VSOs. As our decision-making capability increased—doubling from 1994 to 1997—these dedicated men and women have matched us step for step.
o Our VA leadership, particularly Deputy Secretary Gober, ensured that dealing with the backlog at the Board was a top priority. At the Board itself, we reorganized so that we could take advantage of our new authority. We greatly increased the use of technology to improve our productivity, including videoconferencing to provide timely hearings for veterans, and we emphasized training to produce more and better decisions.
o But most of all, we have been fortunate to have an extraordinary group of women and men—Board members, counsel, administrative support personnel—who spend every working day of their lives assisting veterans and their families in the appellate process. The pressure and responsibility on these individuals has been enormous. And they have responded magnificently. The average number of decisions per employee has increased by 75% since 1994, while the cost per case has actually declined by 25%.
So we have a success story, Mr. Chairman: All of the stakeholders in this process working together to achieve a goal that none of us could have done on our own.
Before I discuss some of the challenges facing the Board, I’d like to outline some specific things we’ve been doing recently.
o As you know, VA recently published proposed regulations to implement Public Law 105-111, which provides for review of prior Board decisions on the grounds of clear and unmistakable error. It’s been a very complex task. We are grateful to the Office of the General Counsel for its expert assistance and to this Subcommittee for its patience. We’ve done our best to get it right, and look forward to thoughtful comments from all quarters.
o We have continued to strengthen our partnership with the Veterans Benefits Administration, both through cooperation at the Central Office level and with frequent contact between our geographically-oriented Decision Teams at the Board and the regional offices.
o We have instituted new quality-review procedures to evaluate Board decisions, and are using information gathered in that process to institute appropriate training.
o We have implemented special quality-review activities to monitor the cases remanded from the Court of Veterans Appeals. Even though those 657 cases in 1997 represent about 3 percent of the Board’s appealable decisions in 1996, we are committed to quality and want to ensure the fairest result for all appellants.
But we know we have more to do.
In our view, Mr. Chairman, the challenge facing the Board at this point is this: Although we have reduced the time it takes for a veteran to have his or her appeal adjudicated at the Board, we need to reduce the "total system processing time," in other words, the time beginning with the filing of an appeal and ending with a final Board decision. Not a remand to the regional office to develop more evidence, but an allowance or disallowance of the appeal.
In 1992—before VA really began to feel the effects of judicial review—the average processing time for final decisions was 512 days. What that means is that, on the average, a veteran could expect an allowance or denial about a year and a half after filing the substantive appeal. By 1995, that number had doubled, and today stands at 1,032 days—close to three years.
We are very proud of what we’ve accomplished at the Board. And this Subcommittee should be proud as well. Working together, we have managed to reduce by two-thirds the time a veteran must wait for the Board to adjudicate his or her appeal. But the fact is that more than 40% of those adjudications are continue to be remands: cases returned to the regional office, typically in order to gather and evaluate more evidence. Those are not final decisions. And unless the regional office grants all the benefits sought—something that happens about 25% of the time—the case comes back to us to be worked again.
So remands cause two difficulties:
First, they mean that the veteran has to wait, in essence, through another appeal cycle, which means, on the average, more than 700 additional days. The regional office must gather the evidence, evaluate it, and make a new decision. Three out of four times, that new decision will either deny the claim again, or grant less than what the veteran sought. That means the regional office must prepare a supplemental statement of the case, allow the veteran time to respond, and then send the case back to the Board.
Second, when the remand rate is very high, as it has been for a number of years, remands become a major factor in the backlog. For example, in FY 1997, the Board remanded about 19,600 cases. We expect to see about 14,700—75%--of those cases again. In other words, if the Board receives 40,000 cases for adjudication, more than 35% of those cases would be remands returned from the regional offices. Not original appeals, but cases that have already been through the entire system at least once.
What we want to do, Mr. Chairman, is reduce the number of remands. We believe that if we can accomplish that, we can give the veteran—who sees "VA," not the regional office and the Board—a quality decision which is more timely.
Reducing the number of remands—just as reducing the response time at the Board—is going to require cooperation by all our stakeholders: this subcommittee, the VSOs, VA leadership, the Veterans Benefits Administration, and the Board itself.
o We need to increase training within the Board to improve quality. For example. so that, , where there are alternatives to remand—such as requesting a medical opinion from the Veterans Health Administration-- or where a closer review of the record may obviate the need for a remand, we need to employ those alternatives or make that closer review. We intend to continue using our quality review processes as our chief guide to training needs.For example, we need to see if we should expand the use of our authority to request medical opinions, particularly from the Veterans Health Administration.
o We need to capitalize on our business partnership with VBA—the regional offices—by continuing to share some of the experience we have gained as the VA’s final arbiter of veterans’ claims and VA’s closest contact with the jurisprudence of the Court of Veterans Appeals. We think that sharing that experience will enable the regional offices to be more likely to develop and evaluate all relevant evidence at the initial level. Our pexperience so far suggests reliminary findings suggest that wherewhen we have investedinvest the time to establish effective dialogues between ourselves andwith individual individual regional offices adjudication elements and have sharedand share our experience directly with them, we are able to affect reductions in remand rates.remand rates decrease.
At the same time, we know that reducing the number of remands could have effects that may be less pleasant than we would like, on the surface, be perceived as negative consequences—
o It may will probably result in some reduction in the total number of decisions we make annuallymean, in the short run, a higher response time, simply because it takes longer to draft a final decision—subject to judicial review—than it does to draft a remand.
o Reducing the number of remands will mean an increase in the number of allowed cases. But it will also mean an increase in the number of disallowed cases. Frankly, most claimants would rather have a remand than a denial.
We are going to need the understanding of our stakeholders during any such transition.
In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, I think it’s clear that there is much to be proud of in the Board’s current performance, and many who share in the credit for that performance. As I’ve indicated, we do not intend to rest, but to seek out new ways to fulfill our statutory mandate of providing timely final decisions. We think that reducing the number of remands will challenges to make the appellate system even better for veterans and their families.
I would be pleased to answer any questions you or your colleagues might have.