Senate committee passes Tester’s VA appeals and modernization bill

Sen. Jon Tester, a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs (center), listens as Missoula veterans describe their frustrations with the VA’s CHOICE program during a town-hall meeting held on May 31, 2017. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday passed Sen. Jon Tester’s legislation to streamline the process veterans undergo when appealing their disability ratings from the VA.

Passage of the legislation serves as a victory for the 21,000 Montana vets who receive disability compensation from the VA.

As passed, the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act will let veterans choose the best disability appeal option without being forced to start the process over when introducing new evidence.

A veteran’s disability rating determines what VA services and benefits he or she can receive.

“This bipartisan bill will cut government red tape and provide certainty for veterans in Montana and across America who are waiting for answers from the VA,” said Tester. “This bill gives the VA the flexibility and resources to process claims in a faster and more accurate way and allows veterans to customize their appeals process.”

The backlog of pending appeals has grown to more than 470,000 nationwide. Tester’s bill will allow the VA to better address the backlog while helping prevent future delays and streamlining the appeals process.

The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act will also give veterans three options, including the right to appeal their existing claim to a higher-level office. It also enables them to appeal at the same office with new information, or appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

Tester said his bill also holds the VA accountable by requiring a comprehensive implementation plan for the new appeals process.  In addition, it also increases transparency by requiring the VA to publish on its website performance outcomes relating to the new appeals process.

Wednesday’s passage by the committee comes on a heals of a recent listening tour conducted by Tester, during which he met with Missoula-area veterans to hear their concerns about the VA.