VA, DOD streamline disability exams
September 27, 2012
Injured Soldiers dread the uncertainty.
Am I medically fit to stay in the Army? If I get out, what disability do I qualify for? What if I don't want my career to end?
A few years ago, these questions would have consumed Soldiers and their time as they shuffled between the medical board appointments of the Army and later the disability exams offered by Department of Veteran Affairs -- a process that could stretch as long as 540 days.
Today a new system has shortened the overlap between the two agencies giving injured Soldiers a streamlined approach to determining fitness for duty and a proposed VA disability rating all before leaving military service.
The Integrated Disability Evaluation System is a collaboration between Department of Defense and the VA to make disability evaluation seamless, simple, fast and fair.
"Our focus is the Soldiers when they're going through the IDES process. Soldiers are going to be taken care when they come through here," said Daniel Barnes, a physical evaluation board liaison officer lead at the IDES Center on Fort Bliss.
"We know that at that point in time, the Soldier is going through a crossroads in his life. We're trying to give them the best opportunity to either continue on with their careers or get ready to separate from the Army."
Fort Bliss's IDES Center (located in Building 11282 across the street from The Centennial on East Bliss) houses the major players of the new system -- the military service coordinator with the Veterans Benefits Association, the Veterans Health Administration which oversees the physical exams and the PEBLOS who guide service members through the entire IDES process to ensure they are aware of their options and the decisions they have to make.
After implementing the program about one year ago on Fort Bliss, IDES has streamlined the process to encompass an average of 335 days, Barnes said. Fort Bliss currently has more than 1,500 Soldiers enrolled in IDES.
"I've been with the government for 34 years and when I started in the Veterans Affairs sometimes it took months or years to get a (disability) rating from the VA," said Bertha Griffith, chief of Special Exams Unit at the El Paso Veterans Health Administration.
"Now Soldiers can get ratings even before they are discharged. This was the best improved process the VA and Department of Defense has come up with."
IDES offers a single disability medical examination -- for both fitness and disability -- and a single disability rating from the VA. After the IDES process, the Physical Evaluation Board makes a determination of fitness -- a designation of "fit or "unfit." But even before the board makes a decision, through IDES, the VA generates a disability rating.
One expectation after implementing the system, said Griffith, was for the VA to perform timely and quality examinations to meet the VHA's goal of a 45-day timeframe to complete exams.
"Soldiers didn't know it was going to go so fast," Griffith said of Soldiers' feedback since implementing IDES.
Under the Veteran Health Administration, all providers conducting the disability exams receive extra certification for disability-related exams, Griffith said. And all Soldiers undergo Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and mental health exams -- thorough and open exams that ask Soldiers to give their sides of the story.
"Even with the stigma of PTSD, we ask them to open up," Griffith said.
And while as much as 95 percent of Soldiers who are recommended for the medical board are separated from the military, five percent are generally retained, said Barnes.
The IDES process incorporates appeal opportunities and also commander input to assess the Soldier's fitness and desire to be retained.
"IDES is helping to increase transparency, reduce overall processing time, improve the consistency of disability evaluations, and reduce the time from date of separation from active duty to receipt of benefits from both VA and DOD," said Tom Morley, public affairs officer at the VA Regional Office in Waco, Texas.
In the last year the IDES program at Fort Bliss has been recognized for best business practices in implementing the new streamlined programs to include multi-disciplinary IDES mass briefings, full-service embedded VHA compensations and benefits exam services and embedded PEBLO assistants in brigade footprints.
With its success in the last year the Fort Bliss IDES Center was chosen as the first site in the Army to participate in a pilot program to automate IDES case files -- an electronic case transfer program to eliminate the transfer of hardcopy medical records and IDES case files via hard copy at the different IDES junctions.
"From basic training and operational training to in-theater operations, all of that is the military environment. The nature of the military is going to be hard on bodies. Soldiers get hurt all along the way," said Barnes, a 22-year veteran of the Army.
"There will always be a percentage of Soldiers who will become injured. It's our job to make sure they get the opportunity to fully recover and can return to duty and those that are disabled can get their proper disability rating and outcome."