What is RAMP?
Over the last six months, many veterans with pending VA benefit appeals have received letters from the VA inviting them to participate in a new pilot program called RAMP. RAMP stands for Rapid Appeals Modernization Program, and it is intended to streamline the VA’s current appeals process and shorten decision times for pending appeals.
As many veterans already know, the current VA appeals process, which the VA now refers to as the “legacy appeal process,” often takes years to produce a decision. Appeals are decided by Decision Review Officers (DROs) or the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA), and it is not unheard of for veterans to wait five years or more for a final decision to made on their appeals.
Initially, RAMP was only offered to a select group of veterans, but as of April 2, 2018, any veteran who would like for his or her appeal to be processed under RAMP can opt into the program. According to the VA, RAMP appeals will be decided on average in 125 days. If a veteran chooses not to opt into RAMP, his or her appeal will continue to be processed under the legacy system.
How is RAMP Different than the Legacy Appeals Process?
Under the legacy process, veterans who appeal a VA denial can opt to have their appeals heard by a DRO or the BVA. DROs are higher level VA employees who work out of the VA’s Regional Offices (ROs), but they are typically not lawyers. DROs are not bound by the VA’s initial denial of a claim, and veterans are entitled to a hearing with a DRO if they want one.
The BVA, on the other hand, is based in Washington, D.C., and decisions are made by Veterans Law Judges, who are required to be attorneys. Veterans are also entitled to hearings with the BVA, which conducts hearings in Washington, D.C. or in local offices by travel board or videoconference.
Under RAMP, a veteran can choose from one of two “lanes” for his or her appeal. The first lane is called the Supplemental Claim Lane. If a veteran chooses this lane, he or she is permitted to submit new evidence in support of the claim, and the VA employee who decides the claim can consider this evidence when making a new decision. In addition, the employee is not bound by the VA’s previous denial of the claim.
The second lane under RAMP is called the Higher-Level Review Lane. These appeals are decided by “senior claims adjudicators.” Once a veteran chooses this lane, he or she cannot submit additional evidence in support of the appeal. Veterans who chose this lane are entitled to an informal telephone conference with the adjudicator, but the VA warns veterans that this may cause a delay in the decision.
What Should Veterans Do?
Whether or not veterans should opt into RAMP depends on the circumstances of their appeals. If a veteran wants a quick decision, RAMP is an attractive option if the veteran only recently filed a legacy appeal and is likely to wait years before a hearing will be scheduled (if requested) or a decision will be made. On the other hand, if a veteran filed his or her legacy appeal a long time ago, he or she may be scheduled for a hearing or receive a decision in the near future, so opting for RAMP may be unnecessary. Veterans should also consider the complexity of their appeals. If an appeal is highly complex, a legacy appeal with the BVA may be preferable, since BVA decisions are made by judges with formal legal training. In contrast, if an appeal is relatively straightforward — because either an obvious error was made in the previous decision or the veteran has new evidence to submit that clearly enhances the appeal — RAMP may be preferable. One additional downside to RAMP, though, is that if a RAMP appeal is denied and a veteran would like to appeal the denial to the BVA, he or she can only do so after February 2019.
RAMP is only available until February 2019, when the VA is expected to fully implement the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017. Many elements of RAMP are likely to remain after February 2019, but exactly how the VA’s appeals process will look after that date is still unclear. In the meantime, veterans should consult with their representatives before opting into RAMP. Every appeal is different, and each case should be evaluated based on the individual circumstances of the case.
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