New Board to Ensure Consistency in Disability Ratings
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 1, 2008 Former servicemembers who disagree with the disability ratings they received when they were discharged as unfit for military duty can now apply to have those ratings reviewed by a new Physical Disability Board of Review.
The Defense Department announced formation of the new board yesterday to reassess the accuracy and fairness of disability ratings assigned to discharged troops, Sam Retherford, the Pentagon’s deputy director of officer personnel management, told American Forces Press Service.
Several task forces and studies cited inconsistencies in the way the military departments assigned disability ratings for similar conditions, he said. The Army tended to assign the lowest ratings, according to the studies.
“The findings were enough to warrant the creation of a Physical Disability Board of Review,” Retherford said.
The new board could potentially affect almost half the 20,000 servicemembers processed through the Disability Evaluation System each year. Of these, about 10 percent have combat- or training-related injuries, Retherford said.
The board would, on request, review the cases involving a combined disability rating of 20 percent or less.
Disability ratings have a significant financial impact, determining if the servicemember qualifies for retired pay and military benefits such as health care and base privileges for life, or a one-time severance pay with no additional benefits.
Those who receive 30 percent or higher disability ratings -- 1,296 during fiscal 2007 -- are medically retired. In addition, more than 4,200 servicemembers were put on a temporary disability retired list last year, a status they can retain for up to five years.
If the combined rating is 20 percent or lower, troops typically discharged with severance as unfit for duty, Retherford explained. During fiscal 2007, almost 4,000 servicemembers processed through the Disability Evaluation System were returned to duty.
Of those separated as no longer fit for duty, more than 9,200 received a severance, Retherford said. Another 1,150 did not receive a severance, typically because their disabilities were due to misconduct or pre-service conditions.
Not all were happy with their disability rating findings. About 10 percent appealed their cases, Retherford said.
Now, under the Physical Disability Board of Review, troops will have one additional method of recourse. Retherford said he anticipates the board will review about 900 cases per year, all by request.
Former servicemembers separated from the military after Sept. 11, 2001, must apply to have their case reviewed, Retherford said. The Defense Department plans to launch an awareness campaign to ensure people who qualify for a records review know about the new board and how to apply.
The Defense Department designated the Air Force to operate and manage the new board, but it will include representatives from each military department, Retherford said. Board members will include line officers as well as medical experts, who will review documentary evidence. No former servicemember will appear in person before the board.
The board can recommend that the appropriate service secretary increase a disability rating, uphold the previous finding, or issue a disability rating when the previous board did not assign one, Retherford said. However, the board cannot recommend a lower rating.
Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David S. C. Chu called the board an important step in ensuring affected servicemembers are treated fairly. “The PDBR has no greater obligation to our wounded, ill and injured servicemembers and former servicemembers than to offer fair and equitable recommendations pertaining to the assignment of disability ratings,” he said.