Progress continues on a streamlined system to improve care for ill and injured service members and veterans, senior Defense Department and Veterans Affairs officials told Capitol Hill legislators May 23.
Jo Ann Rooney, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and John R. Gingrich, chief of staff for the Department of Veterans Affairs, made the comments in testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Expectations for what happens after a service member becomes ill or is injured have shifted fundamentally over the past 20 years, Rooney said.
In 2007, this shift, combined with public and congressional concern following accounts of inadequate conditions, resulted in the development of the Integrated Disability Evaluation System, or IDES, intended to be “a more service member-centric, seamless and transparent disability program,” she added.
The system was designed to streamline the transition of care of wounded, ill and injured service members from the DOD to the VA, or, if they are found fit, to quickly return them to their units, Gingrich said.
“Service members receive a single set of physical disability examinations conducted according to VA examination protocols and disability ratings prepared by VA,” Rooney said. The DOD and the VA share the results and ratings, eliminating redundant requirements and divergent ratings for the same disability.
The singular focus on transition of care has shifted, however, and now includes improving and defining the abilities of service members as part of a commitment to making them whole and providing opportunities to remain in military service, Rooney said.
“More so than at any time in our nation’s history, those who separate from military service are greeted by more comprehensive mental and physical care, by greater opportunity for education and jobs and by a deeper societal commitment to ensuring their welfare,” she added.
Gingrich said two main problems have been found – access to information and reducing the movement of paper files. To that end, a series of enhancements to the VA’s electronic document handling systems will reduce overall processing time by improving work flow and performance management, he said.
The system has reduced the wait time for initial disability payments from an average of 240 days in 2007 to 50 days in March 2012, Rooney said.
In addition, the services are in the midst of ongoing hiring efforts to better manage the current caseload and in anticipation of future spikes in IDES participation, she said.
Gingrich said the existing caseload exceeds what was expected.
“As demand has increased we have adjusted to meet the service member’s needs,” he said. “In January 2012, VA completed 1,254 proposed disability ratings and in April 2012 VA completed 2,363 proposed disability ratings.”
“That is an 88 percent increase in monthly performance, which allowed for a reduction of more than 5,500 of the backlogged claims,” Gingrich added.
Rooney and Gingrich stressed their departments’ continuing commitment to the partnership and to supporting ill, injured and wounded service members.
“The [DOD] has positioned itself to implement improvements and continue progress in providing support to our service members, veterans, and their families while supporting recovery, rehabilitation and re-integration,” Rooney said.