This month has been a turbulent time for the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Although small measures of progress can be seen with respect to appeals reform, set back and uncertainly appear to remain constant shadows over the beleagured agency.
There is no denying that the VA appeals process is in need of reform. As of 2016, veterans wait, on average, four and a half years for their first decision from the Board of Veteran Appeals.
In an attempt to mitigate these wait times Congress recently passed the Appeals Modernization Act of 2017 (AMA). VA is currently working on the regulatory framework, and the full implementation of the law will not happen until 2019 at the earliest, though certain appellants are already being allowed to opt in to this system through the Rapid Appeals Modernization Process or RAMP.
President Trump presented his 2017 budget to Congress back in May. This budget calls for significant increases in spending, but also contains some troubling cuts. One the more significant proposed cuts would have resulted in the loss of more than $3 billion to veterans suffering from service connected disabilities that are so severe they are unable to maintain employment. Following substantial pressure for veterans groups, Secretary of the VA David Shulkin -- originally a proponent of the measure -- reversed course on the proposal late last month.
To the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the word veteran has a very specific meaning. The U.S. government defines the word veteran at 38 U.S.C. § 101(2). This provision states that the term “veteran” means a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.” This definition seems to be straightforward on its face. However, as with anything involving lawyers or bureaucracy, it is not as simple as it seems.