DoD, VA streamline disability claims process

WASHINGTON, June 2, 2000 (GulfLINK) - A jointly-sponsored Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs initiative is helping service members to file for and receive VA service-connected disability compensation benefits more quickly than in the past. The VA's Pre-Discharge Project, which began with a pilot test in 1995, was established to provide transition assistance and continuity of care to service members who are retiring or being medically separated from the military. Military personnel can now complete claims development and physical examinations prior to discharge and reduce the average number of days necessary to process a claim.

"We wanted to assist these members by getting them examined prior to discharge and also have those examinations conducted under the VA disability examination protocols," said Bill Lanson, pre-discharge program project manager at the Veterans Benefits Administration in Washington, D.C. "In this way, the servicemember isn't lost between the two systems."

Prior to 1995, all military personnel had to deal with the system's inefficiencies as they transitioned from the military to civilian life. The VA accepted an individual's claim after they left the service. It often took months to secure records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo., and then additional months to rate their claim.

"Many times treatment was interrupted because records were lost transitioning from one organization to another," said Michael Kilpatrick, M.D., deputy director of medical outreach and issues in the Defense Department's special assistant's office for Gulf War illnesses.

"The new program is really a major step forward in the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs relationship. They are now focusing on the individual with the single purpose of making it easy to receive the proper attention, counseling and advice at a very stressful time in a servicemember's life," said Kilpatrick.

Although the Navy and the Marine Corps mandated a separation exam prior to the new initiative, there were problems with matching VA requirements for disability evaluations. Lanson said he conducted a study in 1994 of the Navy and Marine Corps' separation exams and found that while they met the services' needs for a separation physical, 75 percent of the exams' findings were insufficient for the purpose of disability ratings. Often the diagnosis or findings were not in line with the requirements of the VA rating schedule, he said. Lanson explained that the VA needed an exam that followed the findings of the rating schedule so that the veterans didn't need to be called back after discharge.

The examinations are conducted either by VA medical centers, DoD examiners, or VA contract medical examiners.

"The goal of the new pre-discharge program is to adjudicate claims within 30 days of the date of discharge. If we find that someone is disabled, the proposed rating can be provided to the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment staff, which can initiate the appropriate services in a timely manner," said Lanson.

Efforts to simplify the system began in 1994 when the Veterans Benefits Administration, the Veterans Health Administration and the U.S. Army jointly initiated separation examination pilot tests at Fort Lewis, Wash.; Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Knox, Ky. Results indicated that the VA and the Army could successfully perform a combined physical examination that would be useful to both the VA and the Department of Defense purposes. The VA and the DoD finalized a memorandum of understanding in May 1998 for the completion of a single separation physical examination that would improve program efficiencies and service.

Today, there are 31 VA regional offices in 28 states and 70 military installations actively participating in the pre-discharge program, including 17 Army, 24 Navy, 22 Air Force, three Marine and four Coast Guard sites.

Lanson said there are several ways a servicemember may become aware of the program. Notification is often provided through military publications and the Transition Assistance Program where a servicemember - at a period of time prior to discharge from the service - is briefed about his or her VA benefits and other services available to smooth the transition to civilian life. Each of the service branches has issued instructions for separating servicemembers to complete a DD Form 2697 and to indicate if they have a desire, to claim VA benefits, he said.

The pre-discharge claims development, examinations and ratings initiative is organized locally through negotiations and memorandums of understanding between VA regional benefits offices, VA medical centers and DoD facilities. At 25 of the 70 locations, VA personnel are located at or near the military installation to register claims and perform the rating work. Lanson said that when office space was not available at a couple of installations, VA erected a mobile trailer at the site for staff to take and rate claims and make disability compensation awards.

"There has to be leeway for local circumstances," said Lanson. "That's why much of the program has been developed at the local level through agreements that fit the local circumstances for both the VA and DoD."

In fiscal year 1999, approximately 10,000 pre-discharge claims were finalized. This is out of the annual average number of original claims of 120,000 and the 80,000 claims normally received during the first year after separation from active duty. During the three-month period between January and March 2000, nearly 4,000 pre-discharge claims were finalized. Of that number, there were only 13 known appeals, or "notices of disagreement," filed. The regional offices involved in the program report that veterans have been very satisfied with the improved service and note the low appeal rate.

The VA has plans for future expansion. Since the program's initiation, facilities from all service branches have worked with VA regional offices to develop additional pre-discharge cooperation. These proposals are now under consideration.

The agency's field operations office is also currently considering pre-discharge claims processing for those service members stationed overseas. Last year, staff members conducted a pilot test of 100 examinations performed by contract physicians to servicemembers stationed in Germany. The test was to determine the feasibility of providing the program to servicemembers living in Germany, South Korea and Japan, which is under consideration.

Lanson believes the pre-discharge program is one of the most successful examples of joint cooperation between the VA and the DoD.

"For many years the VA and the DoD were really at arm's length with each other. The more we cooperate and become aware of our processes the better off the servicemember is," Lanson said.