One recent change that VA has made is sending out letter for the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP). If you are a veteran with an appeal of your disability compensation claim, you have probably either already received or soon will be receiving a letter from VA about their new RAMP program.
Many veterans have questions about information they are being sent by VA. Even after you read the letter from VA about the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program, you will probably have questions about what this program is and whether you should participate in it.
RAMP is a pilot program designed by VA to reform the appeals process. If you are familiar with VA disability appeals, it is no secret to you that the system is essentially broken.
VA has a huge backlog of appeals. This backlog causes delay for veterans who should receive benefits. VA and Congress have tried to do something to fix this problem.
Congress recently enacted some legislation to reform that system but those reforms are not in effect yet. In the meantime, VA has started RAMP as a pilot program. RAMP seems like a way for VA to try out a new system and learn the process while working out the kinks.
What should I do if I receive the RAMP letter?
If you have received and read the RAMP letter, it certainly sounds great. On paper, who could dream of anything better?
It says that it is designed to be a more efficient program which will give you a faster decision on your appeal. It even says that you can also keep the effective date of your appeal even if you transition into this RAMP program.
The RAMP letter also discusses how broken the old VA appeals system is and how long it takes to have an appeal decided under the old system if you do not opt into this new system. With all that in mind, you may certainly think that opting into the RAMP system might be the way to go.
From the veterans I have talked to and other attorneys and people in the know in the system, very few people are opting into this new pilot project from VA. I tend to agree with that assessment.
I also have clients who are receiving these letters. For the most part so far, we are not opting into the RAMP program.
Ultimately, this is a decision you will have to make. The question that I have asked my clients is whether they want to be VA’s guinea pig. Do you want to be their test project and let them learn how to do this new system on your appeal?
If you have any familiarity with VA, you know that they have not worked out all the kinks and errors in their current process which they have used for years. So, imagine a wholesale change of how they are going to approach it and what will happen while they are learning this system on your case.
What about this language that says I opt out of the legacy appeals process?
If you read that RAMP letter carefully, you will notice that opting into the RAMP program means that you have removed yourself from the legacy appeals process. What is the legacy appeals process? It is the current appeal system that we are using in VA law.
The current VA process is certainly not perfect by any means. But, it is a known quantity. We know how it works – the good and the bad.
We do not know that with this new pilot project. From the language in VA’s letter, it does seem that you forfeit your right to go with the old legacy appeals system if you opt in to RAMP. That seems to mean that you cannot change your mind and go back to the legacy appeals process once you select RAMP.
I have talked to a few vets who have decided to opt into the RAMP program. I am staying in touch with them to see how the process goes for them. As I receive additional information, I will certainly try to provide updates to this article.
What happens if I opt into the RAMP program?
If you choose to opt into VA’s RAMP program, you can choose which appeals lane you go through. So, in addition to making the decision to opt in, you will also need to choose which type of appeal you want to pursue. Let me discuss a little bit about the different appeals options:
The supplemental claim lane
If you are familiar with the old VA appeals process (the one that we are still operating under for the most part in VA law), you can reopen a claim with new and material evidence. The supplemental claim lane has something similar. It allows you to provide new and relevant evidence. Once you give this evidence, VA will consider and decide your appeal.
The RAMP letter tells you that VA’s goal is to decide these supplemental claims within 125 days. Check that language carefully. This is a goal, not a deadline. VA has lots of goals. They do not necessarily meet all those goals.
If you are denied under this supplemental claim option, then you can do a couple of different things. You can submit additional new and relevant evidence and go back through the supplemental claim option.
One benefit there is you do still keep your effective date as long as you supplement that claim within one year with the new and relevant evidence within one year of the past decision. That’s the difference from the reopened claim under the old system where a reopened claim only has the effective date of the time that you reopen the claim.
You can also go along one of the other options which is higher level review or you can move onto the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA).
The higher level review lane
Higher level review is an option if you have no additional evidence to submit with your appeal. Under this option, VA is not allowed to consider anything other than what is already currently in the record when you opt for higher level review.
I would liken this to a DRO review or Decision Review Officer review under the current appeals process because these higher level reviews are undertaken by an experienced claims adjudicator within the regional office. VA is not using the DRO terminology anymore under the RAMP program, but I imagine this is going to be some of the same experienced personnel within the regional office.
Since no new evidence will be considered, there is no option for a hearing to provide evidence or live testimony for this lane. But, you do have the option under the higher level review for an informal conference during the appeals process. That conference is only to clarify the issues on appeal.
One key difference in the higher level review lane versus the supplemental claim lane option is that VA has no duty to assist in the higher level review lane. If there is new evidence that is needed ,VA is not going to assist you in developing that evidence. This makes sense because new evidence cannot be submitted as part of the appeal, so there is not a reason for VA to assist in developing it.
If you cannot submit new evidence, then it has to be a legal error on the part of VA that you are trying to have corrected. That means that VA got the law wrong.
Most appeals that I see from veterans involve claims where some factual development still needs to be done. That means that there is evidence that still needs to be gathered and submitted to VA. Very rarely do I see one where everything is in place and we just need to argue that they misapplied the law. Because most appeals require some factual development, I do not see the higher level review lane as a huge benefit to most veterans.
What if I choose higher level review and get a denial?
- You can do more higher level review
- You can do a supplemental claim lane
- You can move on to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.
As long as you do that within the deadlines, then your effective date would still be preserved as well.
What other things should I consider if I receive the RAMP letter?
If you have received this RAMP letter, you have an active appeal with VA. Any time you have an active appeal, it is probably a good time to reach out to an attorney who practices veterans disability law to have them take a look at your pending appeal.
If you are worried about the cost of talking to an attorney, our firm provides free consultations to veterans and their families in VA claims. To find out more about how our free consultation process works, just read this short article.
If you would like get the free consultations process started, just call our office at (770) 214-8885 or complete and submit our free consultation request form.