Military Disability System:

Improved Oversight Needed to Ensure Consistent and Timely Outcomes for Reserve and Active Duty Service Members

GAO-06-362: Published: Mar 31, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 31, 2006.

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The House Committee on Armed Services report that accompanies the National Defense Authorization Act of fiscal year 2006 directs GAO to review results of the military disability evaluation system. In response to this mandate, GAO determined: (1) how current DOD policies and guidance for disability determinations compare for the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and what policies are specific to reserve component members of the military; (2) what oversight and quality control mechanisms are in place at DOD and these three services of the military to ensure consistent and timely disability decisions for active and reserve component members; and (3) how disability decisions, ratings, and processing times compare for active and reserve component members of the Army, the largest branch of the service, and what factors might explain any differences.

Policies and guidance for military disability determinations differ somewhat among the Army, Navy, and Air Force. DOD has explicitly given the services the responsibility to set up their own processes for certain aspects of the disability evaluation system and has given them latitude in how they go about this. As a result, each service implements its system somewhat differently. Further, the laws that govern military disability and the policies that DOD and the services have developed to implement these laws have led reservists to have different experiences in the disability system compared to active duty members. For example, because reservists are not on active duty at all times, it takes longer for them to accrue the 20 years of service that may be needed to earn monthly disability retirement benefits. While DOD has issued policies and guidance to promote consistent and timely disability decisions for active duty and reserve disability cases, DOD is not monitoring compliance. To encourage consistent decision making, DOD requires all services to use multiple reviewers to evaluate disability cases. Furthermore, federal law requires that reviewers use a standardized disability rating system to classify the severity of the medical impairment. In addition, DOD periodically convenes the Disability Advisory Council, comprised of DOD and service officials, to review and update disability policy and to discuss current issues. However, neither DOD nor the services systematically determine the consistency of disability decision making. DOD has issued timeliness goals for processing disability cases, but is not collecting information to determine compliance. Finally, the consistency and timeliness of decisions depend, in part, on the training that disability staff receive. However, DOD is not exercising oversight over training for staff in the disability system. While GAO's review of the military disability evaluation system's policies and oversight covered the three services, GAO examined Army data on disability ratings and benefit decisions from calendar year 2001 through 2005. After controlling for many of the differences between reserve and active duty soldiers, GAO found that, among soldiers who received disability ratings, the ratings of reservists were comparable to those of active duty soldiers with similar conditions. GAO's analyses of the military disability benefit decisions for the soldiers who were determined to be unfit for duty were less definitive, but suggest that Army reservists were less likely to receive permanent disability retirement or lump sum disability severance pay than their active duty counterparts. However, data on possible reasons for this difference, such as whether the condition existed prior to service, were not available for our analysis. GAO did not compare processing times for Army reserve and active duty cases because GAO found that Army's data needed to calculate processing times were unreliable. However, Army statistics based on this data indicate that from fiscal 2001 through 2005, reservists' cases took longer to process than active duty cases.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that all service members--both active duty and reserves--receive consistent and timely treatment within the disability evaluation process, the Secretary of Defense should evaluate the appropriateness of current timeliness goals for the disability process and make any necessary changes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) has instituted a Disability Evaluation System (DES) Annual Report in which the military departments report timeliness measures and program measures and program compliance factors. The requirement for this report was directed in the May 3, 2007, directive-type memo: "Policy Guidance for the Disability Evaluation and Establishment of Recurring Directive-Type Memoranda" and the PDUSD (P&R) memorandum, "Disability Evaluation System Annual Report for FY 2007." The annual report was reviewed by the DOD Disability Advisory Council (DAC). One of the major purposes of the DAC is to review data and metrics and provide assessments of effectiveness of the DES process. The DAC has reviewed the timeliness and outcome data contained in the DES Annual Reports and made recommendations, as necessary and appropriate within their charter.

    Recommendation: To ensure that all service members--both active duty and reserves--receive consistent and timely treatment within the disability evaluation process, the Secretary of Defense should determine, based on these reports, if ratings and benefit decisions are consistent and timely across the services and between reservists and active duty members and institute improvements to address any deficiencies that might be found.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) has instituted a Disability Evaluation System (DES) Annual Report in which the military departments report timeliness measures and program measures and program compliance factors. The requirement for this report was directed in the May 3, 2007, directive-type memo: "Policy Guidance for the Disability Evaluation and Establishment of Recurring Directive-Type Memoranda" and the PDUSD (P&R) memorandum, "Disability Evaluation System Annual Report for FY 2007." The annual report was reviewed by the DOD Disability Advisory Council (DAC). The DAC has reviewed the timeliness and outcome data contained in the DES Annual Reports and made recommendations, as necessary and appropriate within their charter.

    Recommendation: To ensure that all service members--both active duty and reserves--receive consistent and timely treatment within the disability evaluation process, the Secretary of Defense should require these services to track and regularly report these data--including comparisons of processing times, ratings and benefit decisions for reservists and active duty members--to the Under Secretary of Personnel and Readiness and the Surgeons General.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) has instituted a Disability Evaluation System (DES) Annual Report in which the military departments report timeliness measures and program measures and program compliance factors. The requirement for this report was directed in the May 3, 2007, directive-type memo: "Policy Guidance for the Disability Evaluation and Establishment of Recurring Directive-Type Memoranda," as well as the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness' memorandum, "Disability Evaluation System Annual Report for FY 2007." The annual report was reviewed by the DOD Disability Advisory Council (DAC). The DAC has reviewed the timeliness and outcome data contained in the DES Annual Reports and made recommendations, as necessary and appropriate within their charter. The Surgeons General are also included in the reports.

    Recommendation: To ensure that all service members--both active duty and reserves--receive consistent and timely treatment within the disability evaluation process, the Secretary of Defense should require the Army, Navy, and Air Force to take action to ensure that data needed to assess consistency and timeliness of military disability rating and benefit decisions are reliable.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) has instituted a Disability Evaluation System (DES) Annual Report in which the military departments report timeliness measures and program measures and program compliance factors. The requirement for this report was directed in the May 3, 2007, directive-type memo: "Policy Guidance for the Disability Evaluation and Establishment of Recurring Directive-Type Memoranda" and the PDUSD (P&R) memorandum, "Disability Evaluation System Annual Report for FY 2007." The annual report was reviewed by the DOD Disability Advisory Council (DAC). DAC meetings have focused on oversight and revisions to policy and process to ensure consistency and accuracy of the DES. Having reviewed the timeliness and outcome data contained in the DES Annual Reports, DAC made recommendations, as necessary and appropriate within their charter.

    Recommendation: To ensure that all service members--both active duty and reserves--receive consistent and timely treatment within the disability evaluation process, the Secretary of Defense should assess the adequacy of training for MEB and PEB disability evaluation staff.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) agreed with this recommendation and began taking steps toward that end. The agency has been holding Disability Advisory Council meetings on a quarterly or as needed basis to facilitate oversight of the disability evaluation system and advise DOD. The Department is also coordinating a directive-type memorandum to address recent requirements in law associated with training, certification, and oversight reporting mechanisms. However, DOD has not yet begun to assess the adequacy of training, therefore, this recommendation is closed as not implemented.

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