Late Breaking News
Wait Times Heading in Wrong Direction in New Integrated Disability System; VA Blames ‘Transition Difficulties’
WASHINGTON — “Seamless transition” has become a buzzword for change within VA and DoD, referring to the handing over of servicemembers into VA care without an interruption in care. One of the most frustrating barriers to that goal has been the system by which servicemembers are evaluated for disability and veterans benefits.
Previously, the disability system has required returning troops to go through one medical evaluation by DoD in order to get their disability rating and military benefits, then another evaluation when they first visit a VA medical facility to qualify for veteran benefits. This resulted in long waits and a benefits gap during which servicemembers might be discharged months before receiving their first benefits payment.
In 2007, VA and DoD began piloting an integrated disability evaluation system (IDES) to eliminate duplication and cut down on delays by using a single set of evaluations based on VA protocols. Officials promised the system would eventually cut the time between when servicemembers are referred into the system and when they receive VA benefits to less than 300 days. Previously, they had to wait longer than 500 days.
While the new system cut the lag-time significantly when it was first introduced, wait times are on the rise again. Legislators have expressed concern that the IDES is not delivering everything that was promised, while VA and DoD officials are assuring them these newest delays are natural growing pains and will be ironed out once the IDES is fully implemented.
Lowering Wait Times
According to VA and DoD, the IDES is fairer, faster and has eliminated the gaps in service that plagued the legacy system. Officials expect IDES to be completely fielded and in service at 139 sites nationwide by the end of this fiscal year. The average processing time for the IDES system as of last month was 400 days from referral to post-separation, down from the 540 days prior to the creation of IDES.
“IDES is a single set of disability examinations using VA protocols and simultaneously processing from both departments,” explained William Lynn III, DoD deputy secretary, last month at a Senate VA Committee hearing on seamless transition.
Currently, the IDES system is running alongside the old legacy disability evaluation system (DES), with approximately 13,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the new system and 14,000 in the old system.
“This means that two servicemembers with identical injuries may go through different processes with different levels of convenience and responsiveness,” said Scott Gould, VA deputy secretary.
With IDES to be fully implemented by the end of September, DoD and VA plan to transfer the 14,000 servicemembers who are in the old system to the new system over the next three months.
Lynn admitted that calling the old DES a “system” was overstating what it really was. “It wasn’t really a single system at all. It’s really an overlapping series of systems,” he said. “You have two medical evaluations, and doctors sometimes have different opinions. And this process often led to a gap in pay. You could exit the DoD system, and it would take six or nine months before getting fully integrated into the VA system and getting a check. With the new system, they’re kept in DoD until they’re fully integrated.”