VA in midst of huge project to rewrite regulations in plain language

The Veterans Affairs Department is engaged in a massive project to rewrite benefit claims regulations using plain language with the goal to make them clearer and more consistent.

For example, VA used its plain language policy on April 12, when it issued a proposed rule for claims dealing with disability and death benefits. The new rule also covers claims based on new and material evidence, claims based on hospitalization, and requests to increase benefits. In the introduction to the new rule, VA officials said the purpose of the plain language project was to reorganize "compensation and pension rules in a logical, claimant-focused and user-friendly format." Steve Smithson, deputy director for the Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission at the American Legion, said the term plain language will be interpreted by what he called "the VA mind-set. . . . It's as plain as they are going to get." The department started the Regulation Rewrite Project in 2002 in response to recommendations made in theVA Claims Processing Task Force Report, which was released in October 2001. The project is a "huge, complex task dealing with thousands of regulations" in Part 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Smithson said. VA is attempting to make this mass of regulations more understandable by putting them "in one coherent area rather than spreading them all over the place." Gerald Manar, deputy director of the Veteran of Foreign Wars' national veterans service, said, as he understands the rewrite process, the new plain language code eventually will contain electronic hooks, which will make it easier to search regulations and link from one to another. Manar said he considered the term plain language to be somewhat misleading, because VA regulations are "complex and quite hard to understand," although the new regulations may have "less legalese." VA could end up with wordier regulations, he said, because it could take longer explanation to make benefits requirements clearer. He drew an analogy between the old and new way of writing regulations, saying trying to understand the rewritten regulations could create a headache treatable with only two aspirin, while trying to comprehend the old regulations may have resulted in a headache that would have required an entire bottle to treat. Manar predicted that the new regulations would be a boon to lawyers representing veterans who have disputed compensation claims because the lawyers will view new language and definitions as a basis for litigation. The House on Monday night passed a bill requiring federal agencies to use plain language in commonly-used forms. The legislation covers tax, benefit and Social Security forms, grant applications and other public documents, but not federal regulations.
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