By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — While VA and DoD have reported to Congress that they have been working to speed up the time it takes injured and ill troops to get through the disability evaluation system, the waits actually have gotten longer, according to GAO testimony at a recent hearing.
Since FY 2008, the average number of days for troop cases to be processed in the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) increased from 283 to 394 for active-duty cases and from 297 to 420 for reserve cases. The goal is to complete the process for active-duty troops in 295 days and for reserve cases in 305 days.
According to the GAO, in FY 2011, only 19% of active-duty servicemembers and 18% of guard and reserve members completed the IDES process and received benefits within established goals. This is in comparison to 32% and 37% in FY 2010.
“In summary, we found that overall timeliness has worsened,” Daniel Bertoni, GAO’s director of education, workforce and income security, told the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs at a recent hearing.
In response to complaints by troops that they were having to undergo two separate assessments that often were time-consuming and confusing, the VA and DoD began collaborating to create an integrated disability evaluation system in 2007. The DES pilot was included in the National Defense Authorization Act 2008 and initially was launched at three sites. The pilot was renamed the IDES in 2010 and was expanded to more sites before being fully implemented by Sept. 30, 2011.
Bertoni said GAO found in its recent review that processing delays were “most significant” for completing the medical evaluation board process portion of the IDES. During this phase, medical exams are conducted to determine a servicemember’s ability to continue to serve in the military.
“In 2011, only 20% of active-duty cases met the targeted goal for attaining a medical decision,” he said.
Delays also were an issue in the physical evaluation board (PEB) phase of the process. In his written testimony, Bertoni said only 32% of active-duty troops received a VA preliminary rating within the 15-day goal during the PEB phase.
Overall, nearly five years after the inception of an integrated disability process, “delays continue to affect the system, and their causes are not yet fully understood,” he said.