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GAO: Military's disability evaluation system has gotten steadily slower

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 23, 2012

WASHINGTON — Efforts to simplify and speed up the military’s disability evaluation system have instead produced a slower, more frustrating process, according to data released by Congress on Wednesday.

Case completion times under the Integrated Disability Evaluation System — designed in 2008 to create a seamless medical benefits system between the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments — have steadily worsened over the last four years.

According to the Government Accountability Office, in 2011 those cases averaged 394 days for wounded active-duty troops and 420 days for wounded reservists, both more than 100 days longer than officials’ stated goals and months longer than they took in 2009.

In addition, a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee investigation found that up to one-third of mental health claims may have been handled improperly, shortchanging troops on benefits and care.

The news is the latest blow to defense and veterans affairs officials struggling with how to deal with thousands of troops returning from combat with severe physical wounds and little-understood mental scars. Senators questioned whether the departments’ respective benefits systems are too broken to be repaired.

“I’m going to walk away from this with the sense that the systems are imploding,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., at a hearing on the issue Wednesday. “Whatever we have done to fix this so far just isn’t working.”

VA and defense officials acknowledged serious flaws, but insisted that the process has made dramatic improvements.

About 13,000 troops have used IDES since 2008. The previous evaluation systems averaged about 16 months for cases to be completed, even longer than the current 13-month average.

In addition, officials said the IDES process typically gets wounded troops their veterans benefits within two months of their separation from the military, a figure they said was still too slow but dramatically better than the one-year wait under the old system.

“We have made progress in improving transparency, improving consistency and reducing processing time,” said John Gingrich, VA chief of staff. “But our biggest achievement to date has been the closing of the [post-separation] benefits gap.”

Lawmakers were unimpressed.

“We can’t allow the same problems that plague the old disability claims system to negatively impact the transition of thousands of servicemembers in the next few years,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “The consequences are too severe.”

Officials from the Defense Department and VA said they are confident that those processing timelines will be reduced significantly in coming months, but members of the committee said they were skeptical that any such results can be achieved.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil
Twitter: @LeoShane