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Service Members Get Better Disability Claims Service

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 8, 2000 – An improved military disability claims process initiated in the late '90s provides physical exams to service members before they retire or are otherwise discharged from active duty.

The program was adopted throughout the Department of Defense in May 1998 as part of a memorandum of understanding signed by DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs, said Bill Lanson, pre- discharge program project manager at the Veterans Benefit Administration here.

"We wanted to assist these (service) members by getting them examined prior to discharge and also have those examinations conducted under the VA disability examination protocols," Lanson said. "In this way, the service member isn't lost between the two systems."

Previously, the VA accepted service members' disability claims after they left the service, according to Lanson. Through that process, he said, it could take months to obtain a service member's military file and health records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis and additional months might pass before military disability claims were rated.

"Many times treatment was interrupted because records were lost transitioning from one organization to another," said Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of medical outreach and issues in the DoD's special assistant's office for Gulf War illnesses.

Today, military disability examinations are conducted while a service member is on active duty, said Lanson. The examinations, he said, are conducted either by VA medical centers, DoD examiners or VA contract medical examiners.

When service members near their active duty separation dates, they can expect to see VA representatives at transition briefings on veterans' entitlements, said Robert Epley, director of VA Compensation and Pension Services.

"One of our VA reps would take you aside ... if you think you have a disability ... they'll talk to you about it, explain to you how the process works, and indeed, they'll take an application for benefits from you while you're still on active duty," said Epley.

Service members can then complete any needed physical exams before separation as they develop disability claims. This method allows their claims to be processed faster, said Epley.

"If they suspect they might have a (service-related) disability, there is no better time than when they're getting ready to return to civilian life," he said.

A goal of the program is to have military disability claims judged within 30 days after separation, said Epley.

The program "is really a major step forward in the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs relationship," said Kilpatrick. "They are now focusing on the individual with the single purpose of making it easy to receive the proper attention, counseling and advice at a very stressful time in a service member's life," he said.

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