Beginning last fall, the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) began sending letters to
veterans whose compensation and pension claims had languished in the appeals system for a very long time. Those letters explained, in very basic terms, the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP). Those letters also gave the veterans an option to participate in the RAMP. The RAMP is part of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017. That law, passed in August 2017, substantially reformed the VA appeals system by making a handful of changes that will hopefully improve the system.
The law tries to eliminate one layer of bureaucratic review in the appeals process. Under the current system, after a claimant receives an unfavorable decision, the first step in the appeals system is the Notice of Disagreement (NOD). The NOD is a form that triggers a review by the DVA. After that review, the DVA issues a Statement of the Case (SOC). If the claimant disagrees with the review explained in the SOC, then the claimant files a request for a substantive appeal on VA Form 9. This is the second step in the appeals process and sends the case to an administrative law judge in Washington, D.C.
Under the new system – the system created in the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 (VAIM) —the claimant can skip the first step. That is, the claimant can waive a SOC and send the case directly to the administrative law judge (called the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA)) in Washington, D.C. Skipping the first step, though, has legal consequences, most notably that the DVA will not accept any evidence 90 days after the BVA receives the case. What this does is give the claimant more control over the case, but it also shifts responsibility onto the claimant to develop the evidence, submit the evidence, and close the evidentiary record. A veteran must have her case ready for the BVA if the veteran wants to skip the review in the current system’s first step. This is important.
Under the new system, on the other hand, the claimant can ask for a “higher level review” before sending the case to the BVA. This appears to be a lot like step 1 in the old system. So, the new system creates two tracks. Under Track 1, the claimant can go directly to the BVA after an unfavorable decision. This is very different from the current system. Under Track 2, the claimant can ask for a “higher level review”, and this Track more closely resembles the current system. The important thing is that the claimant now has more control.
The RAMP is the DVA’s pilot program to begin the change from the current, or “old” system, to the new system under the VAIM. A Participant in the RAMP program is given the opportunity to remove the case from the BVA (the substantive appeal stage), or the NOD stage, and place the case in the “higher review” stage created under the VAIM or a “supplemental claim stage”. Technically, the claimant is withdrawing the case from the appeals system and electing to have the VA treat the claim as though it had never entered the appeals system. The DVA has, however, conceded that the claimant would have “the same potential effective date for . . . [the] benefits regardless of the review option that” is elected. One key consideration, in this writer’s opinion, is the strength of the case. If the case is strong, then participating in the RAMP is worth considering. If the case is marginal – i.e., depends upon the very favorable standard of proof unique to VA law or needs substantial evidence development, then participating in the RAMP is probably not in the claimant’s best interest. Another key consideration is the length of time the case has spent in the appeals system. If the case is close to adjudication at the BVA, then removing it from the appeals system appears to discard all the time spent waiting for an administrative law judge’s ruling. If the case is well developed and has been waiting for a BVA judgment, then declining participation in the RAMP program may be the suitable decision.
In any event, if you have received a RAMP letter from the DVA, feel free to send an email to email@example.com with any questions or reflections on the matter. Thank you for time and attention in reading this blog. The value of your time is something I understand and appreciate.