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Defense-VA disability evaluation system still broken, Senators charge

Committee chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, called the situation she called “simply unacceptable.” <p>

Committee chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, called the situation she called “simply unacceptable.” <p> // Ted S. Warren/AP file photo

The joint Defense and Veterans Affairs department system for disability evaluations remains broken, with the average time to process an active-duty service member taking 394 days, senior members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee charged Wednesday at hearing on the five-year-old Integrated Disability Evaluation System.

The two departments set up the joint IDES system in 2007 to speed the process, which determines whether a wounded or injured service member can remain on active duty, and if not, initiates a VA disability claim.

Committee chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said 27,000 service members remain stuck in the disability system for 100 days or more beyond the short-term goal of VA and Defense to process them in 295 days -- a situation she called “simply unacceptable.”

Ranking member Richard Burr, R-N.C., said it can take as many as 650 days to process Guard and Reserve members through IDES. “That’s a long time for service members to be held in limbo -- not knowing whether their military careers are over and, if so, what benefits and services they would receive,” he said.

Burr said the he found the lack of improvement in IDES processing times particularly frustrating because VA Secretary Eric Shinseki promised in May 2011 to cut the wait to 150 days by 2012. That’s not going to happen, John Gingrich, VA chief of staff, told the hearing. He said Shinseki and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have directed a reduction in processing time to 295 days by December 2012.

Jo Ann Rooney, acting undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, testified that the Army has recently hired 1,218 personnel to expedite processing and Gingrich said VA now has a staff of 174 dedicated IDES ratings service representatives to help speed disability claim decisions.

Daniel Bertoni, director of education, workforce and income security at the Government Accountability Office, said problems with VA’s Veterans Tracking Application, introduced in 2007 as the primary means for tracking cases in IDES, has limited reporting capabilities, and staff at military treatment facilities are unable to use it to monitor their cases.

To deal with this problem, the Army has deployed its own IDES information system and Defense has started to pilot another system at nine sites. As a result, Bertoni said, “staff at IDES sites we visited reported having to enter the same data into multiple systems.”

Gingrich said VA will deploy an improved version of the Veterans Tracking Application in June that will improve data sharing between the two departments which will help speed up the disability rating process, which in turn determines disability payments to veterans.

He said VA also has started to work with Defense to electronically transfer case files between the two departments -- including electronically scanned medical records -- to reduce the transfer of paper files.

Rooney and Gingrich both told the hearing that VA and Defense continue to improve IDES and processing times. Considering the poor record of the past five years, Burr rhetorically questioned whether it would a good idea to junk IDES and “start over with a clean sheet of paper.”

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