Ciscomani Seeks To Relieve Record Veterans’ Affairs Backlog

Ciscomani Seeks To Relieve Record Veterans’ Affairs Backlog

By Terri Jo Neff |

With his first piece of legislation, U.S. Rep. Juan Ciscomani is seeking to relieve a major issue within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – the unprecedented backlog of cases pending with the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

“We have a responsibility to look after our veterans, especially those who have sacrificed so much for our country,” said Ciscomani about H.R. 1378 which he is co-sponsoring with Rep. Morgan McGarvey (D-KY3). “No veteran should be forced to wait for vitally important disability payments.”

In February, the VA reported more than 200,000 undecided disability benefits claim cases, with the average appeal taking 440 days for a decision.

H.R. 1378, otherwise known as the Veterans’ Appeals Backlog Improvement Act, is intended to help the VA respond to a well-publicized backlog that worsened with the passage in 2022 of the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act which expanded eligibility for various illnesses and diseases attributable to toxic exposure during military service.

The VA has dealt with a claims backlog for many years, but the new claims and related appeals have overwhelmed the agency. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis Richard McDonough responded to the PACT Act by hiring hundreds of employees to process the claims.

Yet the VA continues to have a difficult time retaining personnel, particularly lawyers who are vital to the appeals process.

H.R. 1378 will require Secretary McDonough to establish a nine-year pilot competitive honors program through which the Department of Veterans Affairs will recruit law school students, recent law school graduates, and entry level attorneys for employment with the VA.

And each newly hired individual in the pilot program who agrees to remain in the service of the Department for at least three years will qualify for student loan repayment benefits under federal law, according to H.R. 1378.

The legislation also calls for the new hires to be provided a professional mentor within Veterans Affairs no later than 90 days after entering the program.

Ciscomani and McGarvey serve together on the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee and the subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. Their legislation is supported by several groups, including the Disabled American Veterans and the Vietnam Veterans of America.

“DAV has long called on Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs to support significant and meaningful reforms aimed at addressing the growing backlog of VA claims and appeal processing,” said DAV National Service Director Jim Maszalek. “DAV is proud to support this legislation and applauds Reps. Ciscomani and McGarvey for their bipartisan leadership on this important issue.”

H.R. 1378 further seeks to create a pilot internship program to give high-achieving law students an opportunity to gain experience with the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Those who successfully complete the internship program would be given priority consideration if they choose to apply for the pilot honors program.

“These programs will enlist our brightest legal minds to assist the Board of Veterans’ Appeals with overcoming this unacceptable backlog,” Ciscomani said upon introduction of the legislation. “It will also offer aspiring public servants an invaluable opportunity to serve their country.” 

McDonough will be required to provide periodic reports to Congress about the progress and feasibility of the pilot program. The reports must include findings on the advisability of establishing a permanent competitive honors program and other recommendations to improve recruitment and retention of legal staff at the VA.

In a related manner, H.R. 1378 calls on the Secretary to submit a report to the Congressional committees about efforts to improve access to hearings held before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals held by picture and voice transmission.

Such report should include recommendations for the establishment of pilot programs to assess the feasibility and advisability of using other methods that could improve veteran access to Board of Veterans’ Appeals hearings, according to the legislation.

Terri Jo Neff is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or send her news tips here.