Senator Patty Murray, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs is not convinced that both DOD and the VA have implemented a disability evaluation process that is truly transparent, consistent, or expeditious. The “Integrated Disability Evaluation System” (IDES) used to transition wounded, ill, and injured service members from DOD to the VA needs to be improved.
The Senator reports that there are now over 27,000 service members involved in the disability evaluation system with more and more groups of service members transitioning from the military through the disability evaluation process. This process impacts every aspect of a service member’s life while they transition out of the military, so if the system doesn’t work right, it can also negatively affect service members and their families well after they leave active duty.
Daniel Bertoni, Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security at GAO appeared before the Committee on May 23, 2012 to discuss the progress being made by the VA and DOD to meet the disability system needs of the service members. This information is available in the just published GAO report “Military Disability System: Preliminary Observations on Efforts to Improve Performance”.
As far back as 2007, DOD and VA have operated the IDES which combines what used to be separate DOD and VA disability evaluation processes in order to expedite benefits for injured service members. Initially, the IDES pilot was started at three operational sites in the National Capital Region that included Walter Reed Army Medical Center, National Naval Medical Center, and the Malcolm Grow Medical Center at Andrews Air Force Base. By the end of March 2010, the pilot had expanded to 27 sites and covered 47 percent of the disabled within the service member population.
Enrollment in IDES continues to grow as IDES completes its worldwide expansion. In FY 2011, 18,651 cases were enrolled in IDES compared to 4,155 in FY 2009. However, GAO has found that IDES processing time has increased with service members expressing dissatisfaction. Each year, the average processing time for IDES cases has climbed, reaching 394 and 420 days for active and reserve component members in FY 2011. This is well over the established goals of 295 and 305 days respectively.
Also according to Bertoni, there is a need to improve local IDES data reporting capability so local military treatment facilities can track their IDES cases. The Veterans Tracking Application (VTA) system is used to track the completion of IDES cases but still has limited reporting capabilities so monitoring cases can be difficult. The VA and DOD have been working on improving the system and have scheduled the VTA upgrade to be completed by June 2012.
As Bertoni explained, there are other steps that both DOD and the VA need to do to fully address the problems in the IDES system. The measures that should be taken include building up agency leadership, establish mechanisms to improve communication, monitoring, and accountability, increase staffing in a number of key positions, resolve diagnostic differences between DOD physicians and VA examiners especially regarding mental health conditions, improve IDES data quality, and allow the electronic transfer of case files between facilities.