Guest Blog by William F. Russo, Office of Regulation Policy & Management, in the VA Office of the General Counsel
Shortly after Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi took office in 2001, he appointed a VA Claims Processing Task Force to find ways to reduce the veterans’ disability claims backlog.
The Task Force reported that VA regulations “are in dire need of updating and reorganizing to allow easier access to information that is vital in providing a timely, correct decision on a veteran’s claim.” They urged the VA to “First, rewrite and organize the [compensation and pension] Regulations in a logical and coherent manner . . .” Secretary Principi endorsed that recommendation and launched the effort.
The largest and most comprehensive such project ever attempted by a federal agency, the “VA Compensation and Pension Regulation Rewrite Project,” has been underway since 2002. VA’s goal has stayed the same all along: produce regulations that users can find, read, understand, and apply.
VA benefits experts have reorganized regulations in a logical way, writing in plainer language and cutting out obsolete rules, such as those for Spanish-American War veterans. They incorporated years of statutes, court holdings, and VA policy changes, so our staff can find all the claims processing rules in one place. Dozens of staff from its Veterans Benefits Administration, Board of Veterans’ Appeals, and Office of the General Counsel have pitched in. So have talented law clerks. The public has also helped — sending VA hundreds of improvement suggestions. This includes extensive comments by Veterans Service Organizations, who represent disabled veterans in their VA claims.
In response to public comments, VA revised and combined the regulations into one comprehensive rulemaking, published in the Federal Register on November 27, 2013. Due to the document’s size, VA is providing 120 days for more public comments, twice the usual 60 days.
VA will then start the next Project phase: drafting the final rule while keeping the regulations up to date — until the Secretary determines the best way for VA adjudication staff to transition to the new regulations. While this may be challenging, VA’s dedicated employees can do it.
VA claims processing and appeals resolution up through the courts, are rules-based tasks. Better-organized and more clearly-stated regulations should help VA staff decide claims more quickly and accurately, as the 2001 Task Force aimed to do.
President Obama embraced the goal of improving federal regulations in 2011 in his Executive Order 13563, “Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review.” It requires federal agencies to make regulations “accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand.” It also requires “retrospective analysis of rules that may be outmoded, ineffective, insufficient, or excessively burdensome, and to modify, streamline, expand, or repeal them. . .”
The VA Compensation and Pension Regulation Rewrite Project is the cornerstone of VA’s compliance with this Executive Order.
VA will continue striving to improve its regulations, to serve the President’s federal regulations improvement goal – and to serve the veterans, whose claims have surged in the past decade.