WASHINGTON – A system designed to get wounded troops out of the military and on disability compensation more quickly has failed recently to meet its efficiency goals, delaying service members' release sometimes more than a year, documents show.
The lag has caused some of the troops to turn down job offers or postpone college because they don't know when they will be discharged from the military.
The system is called the Integrated Disability Evaluation System. It started as a pilot in 2007, but has since been rolled out to nearly 80 military installations. By this fall, about 140 installations are expected to participate. It works by consolidating the required medical exams and ratings, so that a service member doesn't have to go through the disability claims process first in the military and then in the VA.
Congress pushed the system following the 2007 scandal over poor living conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which highlighted the complexities of the disabilities claims system. Some wounded veterans were left in dire financial conditions as they waited for compensation from the VA.
The new program's goal is to get troops through the system in a little more than nine months on average. But March figures show it only met that goal about 15 percent of the time for active-duty troops, 28 percent for those in the Reserves and 40 percent for the Guard, according to documents obtained by the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee and shared with The Associated Press.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the committee, said in a statement that under the new system, it takes on average nearly 400 days to process a claim.
"All too often this time spent idle results in our men and women in uniform falling through the cracks of the system," said Murray, who is expected to question defense and VA officials about the delays at a hearing before the committee on Wednesday. "This IDES system was designed after the Walter Reed scandal to improve a broken system, but at this point DoD and VA need to take a hard look at improving it before expanding it further."
Thirteen troops going through the new system have committed suicide or died from drug overdoses, according to the records.
Despite the delays as the new system is rolled out, it appears that claims are being processed faster than under the older "legacy" system. In a report late last year, the Government Accountability Office said comparisons are difficult, but that under one estimate under the older system, it took on average 540 days.
The GAO noted problems with the new system such as insufficient staff, but concluded that it shows promise and "service members who proceed through the process are able to leave the military with greater financial security, since they receive disability benefits from both agencies shortly after discharge."