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DoD Overhauling Disability Evaluation System

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2007 – The Defense Department is putting in place reforms to its disability evaluation system and working to ensure the decisions of the Disability Advisory Council are fast and fair, Pentagon officials said today.

The system is used to evaluate servicemembers’ disabilities and separate or retain them, as appropriate. Servicemembers who are separated with at least a 30 percent disability rating receive disability retirement pay, medical benefits and commissary privileges. With a rating below 30 percent, veterans receive severance pay, but no benefits.

In the past, each service had its own disability evaluation system. Now DoD has put in place an overarching DoD-level framework with a single information system, Pentagon officials said. Each service manages its caseload under that framework.

The war on terrorism has taxed the system, officials said. Medical and transportation advances have allowed more servicemembers to survive more serious wounds than in previous wars. In fiscal 2006, service eligibility board caseloads were 13,162 for the Army, 5,684 for the naval services, and 4,139 for the Air Force. In 2001, the numbers were: 7,218 for the Army, 4,999 for the naval services and 2,816 in the Air Force.

DoD officials acknowledge that servicemembers have complaints about the system. According to recent media reports, servicemembers have complained that the military services are not consistent in evaluations and do not follow the Department of Veterans Affairs schedule of rating disabilities. They say it takes too long for evaluations to be processed, the process is unnecessarily complicated, and personnel running the system are inadequately trained in its nuances.

DoD is aware of these problems and is working to address them, said Marine Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman. “We are in the midst of a business-process review that will generate improvements to program effectiveness,” he said. “We are especially concerned with a balance of what constitutes prompt adjudication, while maintaining reasonable flexibility within the system to ensure recoveries are not inappropriately rushed.”

He said the services have increased the number of people involved in the process.

DoD is committed to providing quality health care to servicemembers and a “full and fair due process” for disability evaluation and compensation, he said.

In fiscal 2006 most cases were processed within 70 days, officials said.

The disability process begins with medical evaluation boards at military hospitals. Attending physicians evaluate each patient, looking at conditions that may make the servicemember unfit for duty. If the condition or wound is judged to make the servicemember unfit, the board refers the case to a physical evaluation board. The board has a mix of medical officers and line officers. They determine if the problem is service-related or not. The panel further recommends compensation for the injury or condition and recommends the disability rating.

The Army has three boards at Fort Sam Houston, Texas; Walter Reed Army Medical Center here; and Fort Lewis, Wash. The Navy has a board at the Washington Navy Yard here. The Air Force board meets in San Antonio.

“Servicemembers are afforded due process to ensure their cases and concerns can be fairly considered,” Upton said. “Servicemembers also have rights of appeal at specific points in the process should they disagree with their ratings.”

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