DOD and VA:

Preliminary Observations on Efforts to Improve Health Care and Disability Evaluations for Returning Servicemembers

GAO-07-1256T: Published: Sep 26, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 26, 2007.

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John H. Pendleton
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In February 2007, a series of Washington Post articles disclosed troublesome deficiencies in the provision of outpatient services at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, raising concerns about the care for returning servicemembers. These deficiencies included a confusing disability evaluation system and servicemembers in outpatient status for months and sometimes years without a clear understanding about their plan of care. The reported problems at Walter Reed prompted broader questions about whether the Department of Defense (DOD) as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are fully prepared to meet the needs of returning servicemembers. In response to the deficiencies reported at Walter Reed, the Army took a number of actions and DOD formed a joint DOD-VA Senior Oversight Committee. This statement provides information on the near-term actions being taken by the Army and the broader efforts of the Senior Oversight Committee to address longer-term systemic problems that impact health care and disability evaluations for returning servicemembers. Preliminary observations in this testimony are based largely on documents obtained from and interviews with Army officials, and DOD and VA representatives of the Senior Oversight Committee, as well as on GAO's extensive past work. We discussed the facts contained in this statement with DOD and VA.

While efforts are under way to respond to both Army-specific and systemic problems, challenges are emerging such as staffing new initiatives. The Army and the Senior Oversight Committee have efforts under way to improve case management--a process intended to assist returning servicemembers with management of their care from initial injury through recovery. Case management is especially important for returning servicemembers who must often visit numerous therapists, providers, and specialists, resulting in differing treatment plans. The Army's approach for improving case management for its servicemembers includes developing a new organizational structure--a Warrior Transition Unit, in which each servicemember would be assigned to a team of three key staff--a physician care manager, a nurse case manager, and a squad leader. As the Army has sought to staff its Warrior Transition Units, challenges to staffing critical positions are emerging. For example, as of mid-September 2007, over half the U.S. Warrior Transition Units had significant shortfalls in one or more of these critical positions. The Senior Oversight Committee's plan to provide a continuum of care focuses on establishing recovery coordinators, which would be the main contact for a returning servicemember and his or her family. This approach is intended to complement the military services' existing case management approaches and place the recovery coordinators at a level above case managers, with emphasis on ensuring a seamless transition between DOD and VA. At the time of GAO's review, the committee was still determining how many recovery coordinators would be necessary and the population of seriously injured servicemembers they would serve. As GAO and others have previously reported, providing timely and consistent disability decisions is a challenge for both DOD and VA. To address identified concerns, the Army has taken steps to streamline its disability evaluation process and reduce bottlenecks. The Army has also developed and conducted the first certification training for evaluation board liaisons who help servicemembers navigate the system. To address more systemic concerns, the Senior Oversight Committee is planning to pilot a joint disability evaluation system. Pilot options may incorporate variations of three key elements: (1) a single, comprehensive medical examination; (2) a single disability rating done by VA; and (3) a DOD-level evaluation board for adjudicating servicemembers' fitness for duty. DOD and VA officials hoped to begin the pilot in August 2007, but postponed implementation in order to further review options and address open questions, including those related to proposed legislation. Fixing these long-standing and complex problems as expeditiously as possible is critical to ensuring high-quality care for returning servicemembers, and success will ultimately depend on sustained attention, systematic oversight by DOD and VA, and sufficient resources.

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