Military and Veterans Disability System:

Worldwide Deployment of Integrated System Warrants Careful Monitoring

GAO-11-633T: Published: May 4, 2011. Publicly Released: May 4, 2011.

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Daniel Bertoni
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This testimony discusses the efforts by the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) to integrate their disability evaluation systems. Wounded warriors unable to continue their military service must navigate DOD's and VA's disability evaluation systems to be assessed for eligibility for disability compensation from the two agencies. GAO and others have found problems with these systems, including long delays, duplication in DOD and VA processes, confusion among servicemembers, and distrust of systems regarded as adversarial by servicemembers and veterans. To address these problems, DOD and VA have designed an integrated disability evaluation system (IDES), with the goal of expediting the delivery of VA benefits to servicemembers. After pilot testing the IDES at an increasing number of military treatment facilities (MTF)--from 3 to 27 sites--DOD and VA are in the process of deploying it worldwide. As of March 2011, the IDES has been deployed at 73 MTFs--representing about 66 percent of all military disability evaluation cases--and worldwide deployment is scheduled for completion in September 2011. This testimony summarizes and updates our December 2010 report on the IDES and addresses the following points: (1) the results of DOD and VA's evaluation of their pilot of the IDES, including updated data as of March 2011 from IDES monthly reports, where possible; (2) challenges in implementing the piloted system to date; and (3) DOD and VA's plans to expand the piloted system and whether those plans adequately address potential challenges.

In summary, DOD and VA concluded that, based on their evaluation of the pilot as of February 2010, the pilot had (1) improved servicemember satisfaction relative to the existing "legacy" system and (2) met their established goal of delivering VA benefits to active duty and reserve component servicemembers within 295 and 305 days, respectively, on average. However, 1 year after this evaluation, average case processing times have increased significantly, such that active component servicemembers' cases completed in March 2011 took an average of 394 days to complete--99 days more than the 295-day goal. In our prior work, we identified several implementation challenges that had already contributed to delays in the process. The most significant challenge was insufficient staffing by DOD and VA. Staffing shortages and process delays were particularly severe at two pilot sites we visited where the agencies did not anticipate caseload surges. The single exam posed other challenges that contributed to delays, such as disagreements between DOD and VA medical staff about diagnoses for servicemembers' medical conditions that often required further attention, adding time to the process. Pilot sites also experienced logistical challenges, such as incorporating VA staff at military facilities and housing and managing personnel going through the process. DOD and VA were taking or planning to take steps to address a number of these challenges. For example, to address staffing shortages, VA is developing a contract for additional medical examiners, and DOD and VA are requiring local staff to develop written contingency plans for handling caseload surges. Given increased processing times, the efficacy of these efforts at this time is unclear. We recommended additional steps the agencies could take to address known challenges--such as establishing a comprehensive monitoring plan for identifying problems as they occur in order to take remedial actions as early as possible--with which DOD and VA generally concurred.

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