Efforts to accelerate the military’s disability evaluation system are seeing some success in the Navy and Marine Corps, but Army and Air Force personnel continue to wait a year or more for results, according to a recent briefing delivered to Congress.
Cases continue to take more than 14 months on average in the Integrated Disability Evaluation System — far above the goal of 295 days for active-duty service members and 305 days for reservists.
The IDES, as it’s called, was created in 2008 to combine separate Defense and Veterans Affairs Department systems into one program, streamlining the process for ill and injured personnel leaving the service.
But while the $700 million effort has shortened the procedure somewhat (under the old system, cases took up to 16 months to adjudicate), it has not come close to meeting its goals for processing times and inventory management.
Between March and August, average case completion times ranged from 375 to 402 days, according to the report delivered to congressional staff on Sept. 19 and obtained by Military Times.
The Army faces the most trouble, with cases taking 437 days on average. Just 16 percent of all Army cases are completed within 295 days.
In the Air Force, cases averaged 349 days, with roughly a third completed on time.
The Navy and Marine Corps, which make up 13 percent of IDES cases, averaged 260 days and 274 days, respectively.
The Army has the largest load of cases, with more than three times the number of people in IDES than the other services combined.
In August, the IDES inventory stood at 32,685, including 25,301 soldiers, 3,181 airmen, 1,789 sailors and 2,414 Marines.
The figures reinforce concerns expressed last year by Government Accountability Office auditors and the Pentagon’s Recovering Warrior Task Force — that the process is stagnant and requires improvements such as an electronic records system and increased staff to meet demand.
According to the GAO, cases in 2011 averaged 394 days for wounded active-duty personnel and 420 days for reservists. The latest briefing shows that in August, active-duty cases averaged 401 days, reservists averaged 396 days and National Guardsmen faced the longest waits at 410 days.
Sure to intensify the problem is the government shutdown, which has resulted in furloughs for all Veterans Affairs Department employees involved in the medical board process, according to a VA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“So while we will ‘continue’ to process these cases, they will really be sitting on a shelf because the VA will be unavailable to process them,” the official said.
The medical exam stage and medical evaluation board are critical components of IDES, a stage on which the remaining segments are built.
Another holdup in the system is the benefits award phase. According to the briefing, VA is struggling to complete this portion on time. The goal is 30 days, but the average time troops spent in that phase in August was 93 days.
VA officials have promised things will improve when DoD and VA created a joint paperless, searchable claims file. But the project, which was supposed to be completed by last July, saw the cancellation of a pilot program last November because the system didn’t work.
VA and DoD have plans to revive the program in July 2014, according to the briefing.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said although VA has slowly made progress on all claims processing, he fears continued stagnancy in the congressional budget process will have long-term consequences on the department’s eventual success.
“Because of the ending of mandatory overtime and because of the furloughs, any progress is going to be slowed. It’s very sad,” Sanders said.