Joint Base Lewis-McChord is still looking for the right formula to get veteran benefits in the hands of medically retired troops as quickly as possible.
This week, it’s opening a special office to help close out hundreds of complicated disability claims for military service members receiving medical retirements.
That process, called the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES), is supposed to take fewer than 300 days, but the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs have yet to hit that target.
The consolidation brings together medical, advocacy and Department of Veterans Affairs resources under one roof. JBLM is opening the new 40,000-square-foot office Tuesday (Oct. 14).
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The military and the VA moved to the IDES model in 2007 in an effort to shorten the amount of time veterans wait to begin receiving disability compensation.
But a severe backlog of cases developed by 2011 as troops came home from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical injuries and behavioral health conditions connected to their military service. In that year, 18,651 military service members entered the system but just 7,106 completed it, according to the Government Accountability Office.
This year, the Army and the VA reported that they’re now completing more cases each month than they begin, signaling that they’re making up ground on the backlog.
The process unfolds over four phases, beginning with a military unit and military doctors determining whether the service member is fit for the physical demands of serving in the Armed Forces. It ends when the military service member is out of uniform and enrolled in the VA.
Madigan Army Medical Center has the second highest caseload of medical retirements in the Army because it serves the largest military base on the West Coast. The hospital was at the center of Armywide reforms to the IDES program in 2012 when complaints surfaced at Madigan about doctors changing behavioral health diagnoses late in the medical retirement process for reasons patients did not understand.
The VA processes its IDES cases in Seattle.
"We are very excited to officially open our doors and begin working in the new facility," said Dirk Hosie, Madigan's medical evaluation board chief. "It is extremely beneficial to have all the services that are part of this multi-faceted program under one roof."
More changes could be in the works for IDES in coming years.
In late August, the Defense Department’s Recovering Warrior Task Force called IDES “fundamentally flawed” and recommended that the Pentagon adopt a new model that would be both more reliable and scalable in times of war.
It found that patients in the system too often felt uncertain about when they would complete the process, which hindered them from taking steps to begin careers outside the military. The task force, comprised of high-ranking troops and former military service members, called the process “lengthy and mystifying.”
“A new disability process for (recovering warriors) would be non-confrontational, easily understood, and uniformly administered across the services,” it recommended.