Monday, February 23, 2009

Defense, VA Reform Evaluation System for Seriously Injured Vets

By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

Feb. 23, 2009 - Two years is much too long to determine service disabilities, especially when the injuries obviously qualify a servicemember for full benefits and compensation, a senior Defense Department official said here today. Until recently, that's how long it took all military members to reach 100-percent-disabled status in terms of their disability compensation and medical benefits through the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Regardless of the severity of the injuries, all went through multiple medical evaluations and screenings first with the military, only to go through the same process again with VA, Air Force Maj. Gen. Keith W. Meurlin, acting director of the Defense Department's transition policy and care coordination office, explained.

Often, it can take up to two years to complete the evaluations and another nine months to start receiving benefits, Meurlin added.

"Why put [seriously injured combat veterans] through a two-year process when you basically know the outcome -- that they're going to be 100-percent disabled?" Meurlin said. "And why wait two years to get their VA benefits to them?"

Now, veterans seriously wounded in combat and identified as "catastrophically wounded" go through an expedited disability evaluation process that lasts about 100 days to begin receiving benefits. If veterans are recognized as fitting into that category, they will forego the redundancy of separate Defense and VA medical evaluations and go through the VA process only, the general said.

"We've taken a two-year process and reduced it to three months," he said. "We think it's a lot better for the individual and their family to make it shorter when you understand what the conclusion to the process is anyway."

The expedited process applies to servicemembers whose conditions are designated catastrophic and whose injuries were incurred in the line of duty as a direct result of armed conflict, Meurlin explained. A catastrophic injury or illness is a permanent, severely disabling injury, disorder, or disease to such a degree that a servicemember or veteran requires personal or mechanical assistance to leave home or bed, or requires constant supervision to avoid physical harm to themselves or others.

"We are talking about somebody who has been so badly injured that they cannot take care of [themselves] in daily life operations," he said. "The injury has to be combat-related, and it is a condition that makes the activities of daily life almost impossible for him."

Eventually, all servicemembers transitioning to veteran status may benefit from the changes the expedited disability evaluation system offers. The current system may be completely reformed to a one-year process by cutting out the military evaluation altogether, much like the expedient version. The pilot program for such a process is under way, but no decisions have been made yet, Meurlin said.

"The whole disability system is going through a number of reviews right now," he said. "Within our ability, we're taking the disability system, shrinking it down and making it more efficient."

Today's disability system is really a product of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War, and is well overdue for an update, Meurlin said. The current system doesn't fit well with the injuries military members suffer and the high survival rate they've endured during today's wars, he added.

"I think we're recognizing in this war, with the body armor and the improved vehicles, that we're having a whole different kind of injury," Meurlin said, noting the significance post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries are having on troops. "We're getting a new type of injury and survival rate. We're bringing a lot of people home today that before we would've lost on the battlefield [in earlier wars].

"It's important to get them the right set of benefits as early as we can and deliver them expeditiously and as fairly as we can," he added.

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