FORT MEADE, Md. (Feb. 2, 2012) -- Part of the demobilization process for Reserve and National Guard troops has gone digital with a partnership between the Department of Veterans Affairs Health Eligibility Center and First Army Division East.

In November 2011 the pair implemented an online application for returning service members to register for health benefits during the demobilization process, rather than the traditional paper application. This online application is helping thousands of returning troops get health benefits faster.

"To ensure that our demobilizing Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers receive the medical care and benefits to which they are entitled as new veterans, both the VA and First Army concluded that a new and better process had to be put in place," said Maj. Gen. Mark MacCarley, First Army deputy commanding general-support.

The VA and First Army leaders decided that First Army Division East would provide a strong test site at Camp Shelby for the new enrollment system designed specifically for demobilizing service members.

"The First Army Division East MTC (mobilization training center) at Camp Shelby (Miss.) was selected as the first site for implementation of the new enrollment system because it gave the VA the opportunity to test the new process with larger demobilizing formations," said MacCarley.

First Army Division East is all too familiar with the business of mobilizing and demobilizing Reserve Component service members. The division serves as a major component in preparing both small and large formations for both deployments and the return home.

Currently, returning service members complete form 1010-EZ, Application for Health Benefits, at one of more than 60 demobilization sites during an informational health care briefing. Those applications are consolidated by supporting VA facility staff and mailed to the Health Eligibility Center for processing. During the briefing, service members complete the form and potentially miss valuable information about their benefits.

In addition, because there is a natural lag time in the paper submission process, veterans who immediately visit a VA facility for care may experience delays in receiving the care they need.

"Service members returning from the theater of operations have only a very short time to complete all requirements during the demobilization process," said Justin Hoffman, supervisory health analyst at the VA Health Eligibility Center. "Because service members were completing the application during the briefing, they were distracted from the information being presented."

The manual process was also not as efficient as the VA would have liked for demobilizing service members, giving rise to the new online process, he added.

Several returning units experienced the new online application firsthand in November following their return from Iraq. Other units continue to use the process as they return from theater operations, like the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

"With the new process the demobilizing Soldier is instantaneously enrolled in the VA health care system upon completion of the application," said MacCarley. "This new process improvement is a great example of First Army partnering with the VA to support our Soldiers."

All Soldiers in the units completed the web-based, drop-down form at workstations provided by Division East prior to receiving the informational healthcare briefing from the VA. The new 1010-EZ-DEMOB is tailored specifically to demobilizing service members and captures all necessary fields to complete initial registration eliminating the delay in processing the paper applications.

"[The application] is tailored to collect just those pieces of information that are required from these service members," said Hoffman. With a tailored form the time to complete the application is reduced to less than two minutes for each service member.

The online application also enables the VA to process applications for enrollment faster than the traditional paper process. The paper application could take seven to 10 days to process, but the new demob online application has reduced the processing time to three days. A vast improvement for those needing health benefits immediately.

"This faster process results in quicker notification to service members regarding their enrollment status and access to their medical benefits," Hoffman added.

Benefits that could be subject to different rules if not applied for during the enhanced enrollment period currently ongoing. Recently discharged veterans serving after Nov. 11, 1998, are eligible for an enhanced enrollment period and five years of cost-free care and medications for conditions potentially related to combat service. If a veteran is outside the enhanced enrollment period, enrollment and subsequent care could be based on other factors such as compensable service --connected disability, VA pension status, or a veteran's financial circumstances.

"For this reason, combat veterans are strongly encouraged to apply for enrollment within their enhanced enrollment period, even if no medical care is currently needed," said Hoffman.

That's just what First Army Division East is ensuring for these veterans as they return home, and the new process is yielding positive results.

"This new process proved a remarkable success during its roll out test at Camp Shelby," said MacCarley. "As a result, the VA Health Eligibility Center in conjunction with First Army -- both Divisions East and West -- intends to field the system and supporting staff at each of our MTCs."

First Army Division East has implemented the system at two of its three MTCs. At Camp Shelby, more than 1,600 returning Soldiers have registered through the online system since November. Camp Atterbury rolled out the system Jan. 6 and, in a few short weeks, has nearly matched Camp Shelby registration.

The VA echoes MacCarley's thoughts on success. According to Hoffman, the VA HEC intends to continue refining the online application system for health benefits for all RC service members.

"VHA will continue its collaborative efforts with DoD to ensure the best and simplest approach to simplify the application process for the service member," he said.

Maintaining partnerships like the one with Division East will only make those efforts easier. Division East, too, remains committed to providing the most efficient and best care for all returning service members.

First Army Division East, headquartered at Fort Meade, Md., mobilizes, trains, validates, deploys and demobilizes Reserve Component troops. In 2011, the division has demobilized more than 26,000 service members in support of overseas contingency operations, such as Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn, at three mobilization training centers across the eastern United States.