On average, it takes the VA 138 days to issue an initial decision on a claim. Under the current system, after the VA denies your claim you initiate an appeal by filing what is called a Notice of Disagreement, or “NOD.” Once the VA receives your NOD, they review all of the evidence again and issue a Statement of the Case, or “SOC,” which is simply a second decision on your appeal. It takes an average of another 330 days to receive a SOC. After you receive the SOC, you are required to submit a “substantive appeal,” which then completes your appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.
As you can see, in the current system, VA must deny your claim twice and you must appeal your claim twice. Worse still, it takes nearly a year for the VA to issue its second denial. This is not an efficient system.
The purpose of the SOC is to provide veterans with information on (1) the issues being decided, (2) the evidence considered by the VA, (2) the pertinent legal provisions applicable to the issues, and (4) the decision of the VA on each issue. Stated succinctly, an SOC is intended to provide an explanation for a VA denial so a veteran is in a good position to present his appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. In my experience, the only material difference between an initial Regional Office decision and an SOC is that the SOC contains a section of “pertinent laws” which is little more than an extensive collection boilerplate language highlighting the legal authorities applicable to the denied claim.
The SOC became part of the VA appeals process in the early 1960’s at the direction of Congress. In creating the SOC, members of Congress wanted to “afford a measure of due process in the consideration and final adjudication of disputed claims for veteran’s benefits.” This is a noble purpose, and was appropriate in an era when the Department of Veterans Affairs operated in “splendid isolation.” But the landscape of the veterans’ disability compensation system has changed drastically in the past two decades. Since 1988, when Congress allowed judicial review of Board decisions, the Board is no longer the final hope for veterans who have had their claims denied. It’s time to modernize and streamline the VA appeals process.
As the first step in modernization, I propose doing away with the SOC. As I alluded to earlier, the only apparent difference between an SOC and an initial decision is that the SOC contains a long listing of pertinent legal authorities. I can see no reason why the VA cannot include this boilerplate language in its initial decisions. In addition to sparing veterans from waiting a year to receive an SOC, an initial decision which contains information on each law applicable to a claim would make it easier for veterans to understand the reason that a claim was denied.
Moreover, the institutional benefits to the VA would be many. For instance, while my proposal may add a slight burden on VA adjudicators by requiring them to include information concerning pertinent laws in an initial decision, it would entirely eliminate the need the need for VA employees to compile the redundant SOC’s that they have been issuing for the past fifty years. Many of the employees responsible for assembling an SOC could be reassigned to issue initial claims decisions, thereby reducing the backlog of pending claims and ensuring that initial decisions are issued in a timely manner.
With the elimination of the SOC, the claims process would remain otherwise essentially the same under my proposal. Once a claimant receives an initial decision, including the expanded section on legal authorities, he would have one year to either file an appeal to the Board and/or submit additional evidence in support of his claim. If he files an appeal to the Board, his appeal will be immediately forwarded to the Board where he can present new argument and evidence in the same manner he can today. If he submits additional evidence, the Regional Office would issue a supplemental decision on the claim which considers the newly submitted evidence. This new system gives flexibility to veterans to decide whether they would like to take another shot at convincing the Regional Office to grant benefits, or whether they prefer to immediately proceed to the Board.
As VA works to whittle-down the backlog of claims, many believe that a new backlog of appeals will result. My proposal would simplify the appeals process for both veterans and the VA, thereby reducing the amount of delay and frustration faced by veterans as they seek their well-deserved benefits.