New Disability Process to Expand

Air Force Times

November 25, 2008 – A limited test of a streamlined system to more speedily and equitably evaluate wounded and injured troops is tentatively set to expand over the next seven months from the Washington, D.C., area to 16 other bases in the continental U.S., the Department of Veterans Affairs says.

The test aims to replace the cumbersome evaluation system exposed by the 2007 Walter Reed scandal with a single exam and disability rating system. Officials say the new system will cut in half the time from a recommendation for medical evaluation to medical separation or return to duty.

The program, which officials emphasize is a work in progress, has done just that, said Tom Pamperin, deputy director of VA’s compensation and pension service.

The test began a year ago at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.; National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.; and Malcolm Grove Medical Center at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. It was expanded Oct. 1 to Fort Belvoir, Va., and Fort Meade, Md., and Nov. 1 to Balboa Naval Medical Center, San Diego.

Defense Department officials said an expansion of the final program has not yet been given final approval. “We are considering expanding the pilot, but cannot speak to the details until final decisions are made,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez.

One problem identified out of the Walter Reed controversy was the long delay service members experienced in the processing and receipt of VA benefits. Under the pilot program, the delays appear significantly reduced.

As of Oct. 26, some 779 service members had entered the Washington-area pilot program, Pamperin said. All received one physical exam from a VA-qualified provider using VA’s evaluation standards. The exam is normally a two-part ordeal with differing standards. Under the pilot program, is is administered as part of the standard Medical Evaluation Board, which determines a member’s fitness for duty.

Of the 779 troops, 73 were found fit and returned to duty. Of the 611 who remain in the program, some have yet to be evaluated and others have received ratings and are awaiting discharge.

A total of 46 were retired, nearly all of them medically retired, and 15 were separated from service with severance pay. Of this group, Pamperin said, “All but three were awarded VA benefits on the day they separated.” One of the three took an added week because of a severance pay issue, he said, while the physical or mental condition of the other two required fiduciary aid and more time to complete.

Service members rated at 30 percent disabled or higher are medically retired; those rated at 10 percent or 20 percent are separated with severance pay.

Two troops were separated without severance pay. Pamperin said such cases involve unfitting conditions considered zero-percent disabling or conditions judged to be pre-existing. The remaining 32 members left the program for various reasons. Two died, some were given administrative separations and some moved out of the Washington area, Pamperin said.

All service members who have been evaluated in the pilot program received VA’s decision on their disability percentage on the same day they received the finding of the Physical Evaluation Board.

After the MEB renders its decision, the PEB decides whether to retain or separate the service member, Pamperin said.

When the pilot program was launched, officials also said they hoped to cut in half the amount of time spent in the system. “It’s actually a little bit better than that,” Pamperin said.

The pilot program gives service members enhanced rights of appeal. Previously, a member could appeal to the PEB the conditions considered unfitting, and the fitness determination.

Under the pilot program, when a member rebuts that finding, the PEB notifies VA, which initiates a Decision Review Officer Process that considers the member’s medical evidence or legal argument about the application of the ratings schedule. VA’s decision is then binding on the PEB, Pamperin said.

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