By John J. Kruzel, American Forces Press ServiceJanuary 23, 2009
WASHINGTON - Severely wounded troops returning home now have fewer bureaucratic barriers between them and their veterans' benefits.
The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments Jan. 22 announced a new, faster means for handling troops with "catastrophic" injuries who seek the veterans' status that allows them access to VA medical and other entitlements.
"This new policy should allow servicemembers and their families to focus on the essentials of recovery, reintegration, employment and independent living, with the combined assistance from [the Defense Department] and VA," Michael L. Dominguez, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said.
In the past, injured troops were subject to lengthy reviews under the standard Disability Evaluation System, or DES, before being transferred from Defense Department to VA status. Today's announcement waives this requirement for those with catastrophic injuries -- severe, permanent impairments resulting from combat -- and reduces their processing time.
Troops who participate in this optional, expedited process will be given a Defense Department disability rating of 100 percent, and the VA then will identify the applicable range of benefits, compensation and specialty care.
"Servicemembers and their families will be empowered to decide, after counseling on the options and potential concerns and benefits, the most appropriate choice for their situation," Dominguez said.
The policy allows members who retire under the expedited DES process to re-enter the service with a waiver if they are capable following their rehabilitation, according to a Defense Department news release.
The release notes that the expedited policy differs from the DES pilot program, a new process designed to reduce the amount of time required by the current standard disability processes at the Defense Department and VA, which is administered to troops without catastrophic injury. More than 1,000 troops over the past 14 months have participated in the pilot, which requires one medical examination that yields a single-sourced disability rating.