About 82 percent of the Army’s major units are now meeting the Defense Department’s Medical Evaluation Board goal of processing Soldiers’ disability evaluations within 100 days, significantly reducing a backlog that sometimes took eight months or longer in recent years.
The Army is making significant improvements in most Integrated Disability Evaluation System areas, according to the mid-March joint Army and Department of Veterans Affairs review.
“Army Forces Command and the U.S. Army are committed to working with other services, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, to improve the current Integrated Disability Evaluation System, known as IDES,” said Brig. Gen. Kelly J. Thomas, FORSCOM deputy assistant chief of staff for G-1 personnel.
During a review earlier this month with Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. John F. Campbell, a team of U.S. Army Forces Command, or FORSCOM, personnel and medical officials outlined the progress at 11 major Army posts: Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Bragg; Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Carson, Colo.; Fort Drum, N.Y.; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Irwin, Calif.; Fort Polk, La.; Fort Riley Kan.; Fort Stewart, Ga.; and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
The inventory of cases in the Medical Evaluation Board, or MEB, phase Army-wide decreased seven percent to 6,317, and the average days to complete the MEB phase decreased three percent to 113 days at all posts. The Defense Department’s goal is 100 days.
The Army measures nine IDES stages from a Soldier’s initial referral to the delivery of compensation and benefits. The Army is now meeting the DoD’s processing goals for five of these nine processing stages.
The IDES merges DoD and VA’s separate exam processes into a single process conducted to VA standards, explained Art Strange, FORSCOM G-1 analyst. In combination with the Soldier’s medical records, physical evaluation boards, or PEBs, use the exams to make service fitness determinations, while VA rating activities use the exams to determine appropriate disability ratings.
The Army transitioned in November 2007 to IDES in close partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs. While this transition resulted in increased time to complete the IDES, it concurrently reduced the time required for Soldiers to begin receiving VA benefits following their transition and eliminated the requirement for Soldiers to complete a second round of disability assessments with the VA following separation.
There are about 27,000 Soldiers processing through the IDES system, with about 3,000 in the Air Force, 2,700 in the Marine Corps and 1,850 in the Navy.
“The DoD and VA continue to move towards reform of this process by identifying steps that can be reduced or eliminated, ensuring the servicemembers receive all benefits and entitlements throughout the process,” said Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho, surgeon general of the U.S. Army. “The U.S. Army Medical Department is committed to working collaboratively with our partners across the Military Health System to seek solutions that will best serve those who have selflessly served our country.”
Soldiers begin their VA disability claim while in the disability evaluation process. This allows Soldiers to receive VA disability benefits shortly after leaving military service. Under the previous process, Soldiers waited up to 240 days before receiving VA disability benefits. This benefit gap created financial hardship for many wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers.
As of March 13, the William Beaumont Army Medical Center at Fort Bliss is the Army’s lead for a new electronic case-filing training program helping to decrease the post’s average processing times for referral and in the MEB stages.
“Our focus is on Soldiers when they’re going through the IDES process. Soldiers are going to be taken care of 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.”
At Fort Bragg, the post continues to meet or exceed processing standards for Soldiers: 32 days on average in the MEB stage (DOD’s goal is 35 days) and 92-percent of MEB cases are now processed in under 100 days, the Defense Department’s goal.
At Fort Campbell, Soldiers may attend special IDES Town Hall Meetings designed to focus on the often complex cases. That collaboration also extends to the post’s efforts with the VA and legal teams being co-located to enhance teamwork.
Fort Carson officials also are implementing a complexity-based MEB program and will implement April 1, the MEB Remote Operating Capability. The post is also “leading change” with their commander accessibility policy and efforts to assign Physical Evaluation Board Liaison Officers with Fort Carson’s units.
The focus at Fort Drum is a weekly review of cases outside of the standard processing time to bring added attention and resources to Soldiers’ cases and monitor potential “friction points” that could cause delay.
Fort Hood, with more than eight percent of the Army’s cases, continues a trend in reducing processing time in the MEB state and phase standards, using daily situation reports to focus priorities and anticipates meeting the DOD’s 100-day standard around May 1.
The Army’s Combat Training Centers at Fort Irwin and Fort Polk also report progress in case-return rates and quality control.
Fort Riley officials report a 91-percent improvement in the past six months for their MEB cases lasting over 100 days.
Likewise, Fort Stewart is eliminating case backlogs and bottlenecks in their transition processes.
Given FORSCOM’s scope and Soldier population, it previously had 33 of the Army’s IDES cases that were more than 13-16 months old. Through a team effort with the U.S. Army Physical Disability Agency and the VA, FORSCOM senior commanders closed one-third of these cases since last month.
“Obtaining the best results at the end of the IDES process are achieved through well-informed Soldiers and spouses who ask thoughtful questions and take ownership of their care and transition management” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey N. Colt, XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg deputy commanding general. “Getting the IDES transition right should help set the conditions for a smooth takeoff to new opportunities.”