Stopping the Runaround: New Disability Evaluation Systems Benefits Soldiers

Article excerpt

A joint initiative between the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs aims to simplify and streamline the delivery of disability services and benefits for wounded, injured or ill servicemembers who are unable to continue service.

The new Integrated Disability Evaluation System, or IDES, makes the overall evaluation process faster and simpler for servicemembers, according to Col. Sheila Hobbs, the chief of patient administration for the Office of the Surgeon General, who helped develop the new system. IDES provides servicemembers a seamless transition from active duty to veteran status, she added.

On average, Soldiers evaluated through IDES received their VA disability benefits more than 50 percent faster than those evaluated through the legacy system in use by the Army since 1949, according to Col. Daniel Cassidy, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Physical Disability Agency, headquartered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Under the older system, Soldiers had to separate from service with discharge papers in hand before entering the VA system, sometimes waiting more than a year before receiving VA benefits. Soldiers enrolled in the new system can begin their VA disability claim within 10 days of initiating the process with the Army, according to Denise Brown, the lead physical evaluation system board consultant with the Office of the Surgeon General, who has been involved with IDES since the system launched in 2007. The system is designed so that servicemembers can receive their first VA check 30 days after they separate from service.

Both DOD and the VA align resources in this new process that uses a single, comprehensive, head-to-toe physical examination and single-source disability rating, which eliminates redundant medical exams and disability ratings. Before IDES, Soldiers received two ratings: one from the Army based on Army medical exams and a separate rating from the VA based on VA exams. Additionally, each military service had a different rating system, which some servicemembers to question whether the ratings they received were fair.

"It was difficult for Soldiers to understand (that the VA and Army) were looking at different things," said Cassidy, who said the legacy system appeared adversarial to some, pitting Soldier against service.

Now each military service uses the same DOD rating system and the same comprehensive physical exam by a VA-certified doctor. VA evaluators rate servicemembers' disabilities, and servicemembers receive a "service unfitting" rating and a single VA-determined disability rating that both DOD and the VA recognize. Single, comprehensive exams and single-source disability ratings have enhanced the delivery of compensation and benefits, while also reducing the uncertainty associated with navigating through separate DOD and VA systems.

Soldiers who are unable to return to full military duty because of an illness or injury are referred to a medical evaluation board and assigned a physical evaluation board liaison officer, to help steer them through the entire Army process until they separate. Each Soldier is also assigned a VA military service coordinator to help them navigate the VA system.

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One Soldier, currently awaiting her fit-for-duty decision through IDES, said her PEBLO contacted her right away and she started her VA appointments from the very beginning.

"I've got an awesome PEBLO," said the combat medic who was injured while serving in Iraq. "She's pretty good (about) contacting me. She gives me e-mail updates every week." The medic ' called Audrey George, a PEBLO at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the "middle man" who keeps both her and the command well informed. Although it may be several more weeks before she receives her rating, the Soldier said the wait is worth it, and the entire process was smooth. …