Laura Eskenazi, J.D. ’92, the executive in charge and vice chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, gave the keynote address Friday, June 3 at the Eighth Annual Veterans’ Legal Assistance Conference & Training at the University of Baltimore.
Designed for lawyers, law students, veterans, policymakers and other service professionals, the conference provided a forum for discussion of critical legal issues facing veterans. The event also included basic and advanced trainings for lawyers interested in representing veterans in claims for service-connected disability benefits, as well as training for veterans interested in serving as mentors for the Baltimore City Veterans Treatment Docket. (See earlier post.)
Eskenazi acknowledged that the notoriously cumbersome veterans’ appeals process was in “dire need” of reform.
“Our leadership has recognized that this is so important to veterans and to taxpayers,” she said. “The system is just broken.”
The appeals system is overloaded, she continued, noting that the United States has been at war for an extended period, which has translated into an enormous demand for veterans’ services. She observed, too, that the veteran population is aging: While the nation had half a million veterans aged 65 or above in 1960, the number today is 9.8 million.
“There’s been a huge shift in demographics that potentially utilize the services of the department,” Eskenazi said.
In addition, advances in medicine and the higher survival rate from battlefield injuries have increased not just the number of veterans in need of VA services but also the complexity of their cases, she said.
VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald and Deputy Secretary Sloan D. Gibson, both West Point graduates who came to the VA in 2014 from the private sector, are committed to streamlining an agency that in recent years has come under withering criticism from politicians, the media and the public, Eskenazi said.
Under their leadership, the VA this year identified 12 “breakthrough” priorities, she said, including modernizing IT systems, improving the morale of the department’s 340,000 employees, addressing homelessness and health problems among veterans – and simplifying the veterans’ appeals process.
Established by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals was designed to hold hearings with veterans and issue timely appeals decisions, Eskenazi said.
However, multiple “fixes” to the process over the decades created a complicated system whose organizational chart today resembles a “pile of spaghetti,” she said.
“It’s like one of those maps in a maze,” Eskenazi continued, describing an appeals process so convoluted that it’s impossible to gauge how long it will take the agency to decide on any particular appeal.
“’How long will it take?’” Eskenazi asked rhetorically. “No one in the system today can answer that question.”
Today, she said, 450,000 appeals are pending before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals – a figure 33 percent higher than that three years ago.
“The system can’t keep up,” she said.
But, Eskenazi added, there is hope: Steps are being taken to streamline the veterans’ appeals system in the future. Congress approved funding for a plan to simplify the appeals process and reduce the time it takes to render a decision.
“We could be on the verge of a breakthrough,” she said.
The University of Baltimore School of Law and The Bob Parsons Veterans Advocacy Clinic were among the organizers of the conference and training. Other organizers included the Homeless Persons Representation Project, Maryland Legal Aid, the Neighborhood Legal Services Program, the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, and the Veterans’ Affairs and Military Law Section of the Maryland State Bar Association.