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WASHINGTON — Defense and Veterans Affairs officials last week launched a pilot program to simplify the disability ratings process for wounded troops, trimming it down to a single medical exam, a system that could lead to faster and more generous benefits.

The concept was one of several changes recommended by commissions examining the military health care system in the wake of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center controversy earlier this year.

Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy, told reporters Friday that the pilot will be a single disability evaluation conducted by VA medical personnel for wounded troops. The idea, he said, is to provide a system that is “faster, more compassionate, less adversarial and by all means more efficient.”

The pilot will include all troops with serious injuries being treated in the national capital region, including those at Walter Reed in Washington; the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.; and the Malcolm Grow Medical Center at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

Under the current process, wounded troops must undergo a complete physical evaluation to determine if they can remain in the military. Carr said depending on the results, they can return to duty, retire with a severance package or retire with a full pension.

Those troops who retire must undergo a second VA evaluation to determine the extent of their veterans benefits. Critics said the multiple exams and conflicting ratings often left wounded troops confused and frustrated.

Under the pilot program, troops will undergo a single disability evaluation performed by VA medical staff. The results will be used by both departments in their separate processes.

“For a federal agency to accept the work of another agency is not trivial,” Carr said. “But you’ve got to take that in order for this to work.”

Typically, VA disability ratings are on average 8 percent higher than Defense ratings, Carr said. He said that gap likely isn’t enough to disqualify troops trying to stay on active duty.

But it would mean higher payouts once those troops enter the veterans affairs system. The joint evaluation also would cut down on the wait troops have before receiving that money after medical retirement, which is often up to six months.

Michael Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary for personnel and readiness, said officials have no time line for expanding the program beyond the capital region, but officials will be monitoring its progress to see when all wounded troops might be brought into a more simplified system.

Also Friday, Defense officials announced the launch of a new Defense Center of Excellence focused on traumatic brain injury and mental health issues.

The center, to have its headquarters in Virginia and due to be fully operational by October 2009, will work jointly with VA experts to evaluate and improve treatment of psychological health and brain injury issues.


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