DoD disability evaluations 'falling behind'

Tuesday - 8/9/2011, 6:41am EDT

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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By Jared Serbu
Reporter
Federal News Radio

In a new joint system designed to accelerate the process of getting veterans' benefits to wounded troops more efficiently, the Department of Veterans Affairs is "way ahead" of the Pentagon, the Army's No. 2 officer lamented Monday.

"We are losing ground because commanders are not involved to the level they should be, given the potential impact this has on the overall readiness of our force," said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff at a wounded warrior transition conference in Orlando, Fla.

DoD and VA began the Integrated Disability Evaluation System, or IDES, as a 2008 pilot program intended to shorten the length of time it took for wounded servicemembers to start receiving VA benefits. Under the old system, the average processing time was 540 days per wounded warfighter, in part, because the two departments were duplicating one another's processes with each adjudicating a servicemember's status separately. Under IDES, DoD and VA are aiming for an average of 295 days from start to finish.

In the meantime, DoD is falling behind in the joint project, Chiarelli said.

"The VA is well ahead of us," he said, repeating the statement for emphasis. "In every single area, the VA has a better handle of meeting the goals, and they have much better tracking numbers than we do. Secretary (of Veterans Affairs Eric) Shinseki's deputy, John Gingrich has taken this on himself, and he is like a bull in a china closet making sure that VA lives up to its part of the deal."

Chiarelli said in some ways, IDES actually has increased the amount of time that parts of the disability evaluation process take. And while he said speed is not always the best metric of the quality of the system, he said DoD is falling behind with IDES. Since January 2008, the rate at which new cases come into the system has increased 160 percent, while case processing time has also increased 48 percent.

"It currently takes an average of 258 days for a soldier just to complete the physical evaluation board. It's even longer before that individual actually starts receiving VA benefits," he said.

But Chiarelli thinks the problem is much worse than that. He said some military units are holding back on entering servicemembers into the new IDES system so that their processing time looks better on paper than it truly is.

"We found that at a couple posts, camps and stations, in order to keep their numbers down they've held onto files until they're almost complete, and then they put the individual into the IDES system. An individual that's not in the IDES system is just as non-deployable as person who's put into the IDES system."

Last week, Congress heard first-hand evidence that IDES is failing to streamline the disability evaluation process. Crystal Nicely, who has been helping to care for her husband, Todd, since he lost both arms and legs while serving as a Marine in Afghanistan last year, told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that his transition out of the military has been difficult and slow.

"Todd has been part of the IDES system, which I understand is supposed to be faster. That has not been our experience," Nicely said. "At one point, a simple summary of my husband's injuries sat on someone's desk for almost 70 days, waiting for approval. I thank Chairman {Patty} Murray (D-Wash.) for helping to get the issue resolved, but it shouldn't take me talking to a United States senator to help my husband. More importantly, what about all the other wounded Marines who haven't had a chance to ask for that kind of help?"

Chiarelli said in order to speed things up, military commanders need to treat the warrior transition process as their responsibility and not leave it to the military's medical authorities.

"What frustrates me the most, and I'm probably going to ruffle some feathers here, has been the lack of leader involvement in the process," he said. "When I looked into this, I found many commanders were focused on other things or were relying their staffs to deal with these issues. This is commanders' business, plain and simple. It's too important to leave it to the staff or doctors to figure out how to implement IDES effectively. We're not going to fix the system at the levels of the office of the secretary of defense or the headquarters of the department of the Army. This has got to be fixed at the local level."