VA Tele-Hearing Law Addresses COVID-19 Concerns
On April 10, 2020, HR 4771, the VA Tele-Hearing Modernization Act (THMA), was signed into law. It charges the VA with a duty to provide and maintain a "secure internet platform" giving veterans the freedom to participate in a hearing "at a location selected by the appellant." The law will allow many veterans, who are immune system compromised, to continue litigating their case without leaving the security of their home. Undoubtedly the bill's enrollment and passage in to law was timely in the COVID-19 pandemic laden environment. But, HR 4771 was introduced months and months earlier.
In October 2019, Rep. Joe Cunningham, Democrat, South Carolina, introduced the THMA. In some ways, Rep. Cunningham was prophetic, because nobody had heard of COVID-19 when he proposed the law. Only several months later, on April 10, 2020, a month after the spread of the disease was labeled a pandemic, did the President sign Cunningham's bill into law.
It is a useful tool to add to an appellant's tool-box. In our view, a hearing can be very, very helpful; but, many of our clients struggle with walking, standing, and sitting for lengthy periods in a vehicle. Some of our clients have particularly struggled during the winter when side-walks and slippery and snow can bog-down walking even for the young and healthy. So, this law, while especially useful now, will provide relief to many of our clients in the future too.
You can read the text of the bill at https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/4771/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22hr+4771%22%5D%7D&r=1&s=3. If you are interested in how we approach advocacy during informal conferences and more formal BVA hearings, then feel free to call or email us. As noted above, hearings are a very valuable tool if the witness testimony is well prepared to address gaps in the evidence of record. This new law may also increase the freedom for experts -- like orthopedists and vocational experts to attend hearings -- reducing a case's litigation costs.
So, the THMA existed before COVID-19, and we will use if effectively after COVID-19. We are thinking about how to use this new law beyond the COVID-19 context, and as an appellant, you should as well -- because this will, thankfully, end soon.