February 15, 2008 – A pilot project intended to speed the process of evaluating and rating service members’ disabilities will do little more than turn a bad process into “a fast bad process,” the Army’s top medical official said Friday.
Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker’s comments came at a hearing at which the services’ surgeons general had their chance to brag about what they have done in the year since the outpatient scandal at Walter Reed broke — standing up units specially designed to take care of wounded troops, asking for and receiving money to house those service members, ombudsmen, internal checks and toll-free numbers for reporting problems – before the House Armed Services Subcommittee.
Schoomaker also spent some time talking about continued problems, including his view that the pilot project designed to streamline the disability system will not prove to be the answer.
Under the test, taking place at three military medical facilities and one VA medical center in the Washington, D.C., area, service members will receive a single medical examination and a single disability rating issued by VA, an effort to eliminate duplication in the separate military and VA systems and speed up the process.
But Schoomaker said both the military and VA systems for dealing with service members’ disabilities is based on an “outdated” model from the 1940s, when most of the force consisted of single soldiers with no health care. “When you speed up a bad process, all you have is a fast bad process,” Schoomaker said of the ongoing pilot project.
On other issues, Schoomaker said mental health descriptors used by military medical professionals need to be updated to fit today’s ideas about post-traumatic brain injury and depression.
He also said the Army found a new “trend” as it grouped all of its wounded soldiers into one system where they could be carefully monitored: 11 deaths in that population due to suicide, accidental overdose by prescription medications, and in motor vehicle accidents. Schoomaker said the combination of multiple prescription drugs — usually pain medication — mental health issues, alcohol and no supervision on the weekends are contributing to the problem.
The Army is creating a policy to ensure only one medical provider prescribes medication for each soldier, he said, adding that officials are looking into the possibility of having squad leaders monitor medication for soldiers who may need additional help.
Officials also are considering alcohol-free zones in barracks, he said.