October 9, 2008 – A program allowing injured active-duty members to apply for veterans’ disability benefits before they separate is reducing the financial strain on wounded troops in the months before they leave service, according to a draft report by congressional auditors.
Called “benefits delivery at discharge,” the program tries to avoid having benefits claims for new veterans tied up in the six-month backlog of other claims making their way through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The program allows claims to be filed within 180 days of discharge. While the claim is not fully processed until the service member leaves active duty, a preliminary disability rating is determined based on physical exams and a review of medical records to reduce the waiting time for the first disability check.
The program is available at major U.S. military bases, including Coast Guard facilities, and at VA regional offices.
If the program works, and the Government Accountability Office says it mostly does, the first disability check could be waiting for service members as soon as they leave active duty.
“This could end up being the way to eliminate the backlog,” said a congressional aide who is monitoring the program. He was referring to the 400,000 benefits claims pending before VA – a combination of new claims, appeals of older claims and requests for changes in disability benefits.
The audit report says the program is more efficient than the traditional claims process. One reason it works is that a service member’s medical and personnel records – which are important to determining if a disability is service-connected – are easily available while the member is still on active duty, the report says.
Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, ranking Republican on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and a longtime advocate of programs to ease the transition from military to civilian life for disabled veterans, said it is long past time to fully implement the program, which has been tested since 1998.
“Common sense dictates that claims established prior to separation from active service are more easily adjudicated than ones filed months or years afterward,” Buyer said. “Doing so increases both accuracy and efficiency, and processing as many claims as possible in this manner will have a positive impact throughout the entire system.”