Nearly three years after a chorus of complaints from local soldiers went public, a program designed to reduce the waiting time for veterans' disability claims will expand to Fort Lewis and five other military installations.
The Disability Evaluation System aligns the disjointed processes for filing medical claims with the Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
It now takes about five months to complete a claim at the Seattle VA Regional Office, external affairs manager Rob Hard said, but the new program should lead to new claims being “completed at, or very close to, the service member’s date of discharge from military service.”
The Pentagon announced the expansion of the pilot program last week. It is expected to be up and running at Fort Lewis by March 31.
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Two years ago, amid reports that veterans were waiting six months for processing, Sen. Patty Murray called the wait “absolutely unacceptable.”
“People are waiting for their benefit checks to pay the rent and put food on the table for their families,” the Washington Democrat said at the time. “They are waiting at the mailbox and nothing comes.”
Soldiers’ stories about their stressful transition through the military’s disability rating system reached a peak at Fort Lewis in early 2007.
One of their chief complaints was that the Army tries to move soldiers out of the military with as little disability rating – and therefore, little compensation – as possible.
The grievances found an audience in Congress, culminating when Murray and four other Washington state lawmakers wrote a strongly worded letter to the Army secretary in March 2007. Among other concerns, they said soldiers’ medical treatments were being denied, that they face retaliation if they complain and that the rating process was slow and unresponsive.
“Some soldiers had been in the disability assessment process for three years,” the letter said.
Last week, Murray’s office struck a more positive tone, hailing the expanded pilot program as an “important step toward bringing our disability rating system into the 21st century for wounded service members returning to Fort Lewis.
“Our service members not only deserve the benefits they’ve earned, they are also owed clarity and efficiency in delivering those benefits,” said Murray, usually a sharp critic of the VA. “This pilot program moves us toward ending the repeated exams, confusing requirements, and red tape that have caused our service members and their families so much grief.”
Among the improvements on their way to Fort Lewis will be a single disability rating used by both the military and VA. That rating is determined by a variety of factors, such as medical records and the type of injuries the service member is claiming.
The rating determines what sorts of compensation, eligibility to VA health care, vocational rehabilitation and other services are available. State and federal agencies often use the rating during hiring processes.
Under the current system, a medical examination board evaluates the extent of a service member’s wounds or injuries as he or she is leaving for civilian life. The service member is again evaluated – this time by the VA – after leaving the military.
In a release, the Pentagon called the two systems “duplicative, time-consuming, and often confusing.”
The VA has added thousands of staffers nationwide in recent years to cope with the influx of mounting disability claims – many related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – but the waiting time hasn’t budged much.
The program that’s coming to Fort Lewis began in November 2007 at three installations near Washington, D.C., and expanded to 18 other sites in October 2008.
It stemmed from the recommendations from four commissions and was funded through the Defense Authorization Act of 2008. More than 5,400 service members have participated in the pilot since it launched.
The other installations included in last week’s announcement were Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Riley, Kan.; and Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, Va.
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758