American Legion's Gerardo Avila testifies before the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs on Dec. 13 in Washington, D.C.

Legion testifies on pre-discharge programs for separating servicemembers

The American Legion testified before Congress on Dec. 13 during a hearing at the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., about the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) pre-discharge programs for separating servicemembers.

The hearing, hosted by the House Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, examined how the Department of Defense (DoD) and VA are managing IDES and Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) claims. Topics included progress in improving the IDES program; timeliness for processing IDES claims; effectiveness of the changes to the BDD program; VA’s reasons for eliminating the Quick Start (QS) program; training for employees involved in IDES and BDD claims; and servicemember satisfaction with the programs.

“The American Legion continues to focus on the many challenges facing today’s transitioning servicemembers,” said Gerardo Avila, deputy director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division. “The IDES program, while not perfect, has been helpful in reducing the number of days it takes to complete the medical board process which has drastically reduced the gap from separation date to receipt of benefits.”

Prior to the IDES program, Avila said the transfer of wounded, ill and injured servicemembers from DoD to VA was fragmented. This not only led to large gaps in medical care and VA disability compensation, but also placed further stress on those servicemembers who were at the crucial point of transitioning out of active duty service.

“It also hindered their ability to plan for their financial future due to their VA claims not being adjudicated for months and in some cases, years after their separation,” he said. “In many instances, it seemed that DoD and VA were using different sets of criteria to rate disabilities.

“All too often, unfit conditions received a different set of ratings from DoD compared to VA. Servicemembers were confused by this new system and many were unaware of their rights and how the process worked.”

The American Legion helps servicemembers across the United States and surrounding region, including warrior transition units located at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and in Fort Belvoir, Va. The Legion also maintains service officer staff, many of whom review exam results and represent servicemembers in hearings when warranted, at VA’s BDD sites in North Carolina and Utah.

The service officer staff, according to Avila, have assisted veterans with more than 500 BDD and QS claims quarterly. It wasn’t until recently that the Legion expanded its services and began assisting with the Medical Evaluation and Physical Evaluation Board process at Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Servicemember and Family Assistance Center in Washington.

“The American Legion helps in reviewing the findings of the board, writing rebuttals and answering questions about the IDES process,” he said.

Due to ongoing concerns, Avila said the Legion supports the idea of having one compensation and pension exam and a rating decision in which the results can be accepted by both VA and DoD.

Temporary Disability Retirement List (TDRL)

Avila said servicemembers found unfit to continue service, for a condition that is not stable enough to assign a permanent rating, will end up on TDRL. If the individual is retired and is transitioned out of service, they will be required to undergo periodic examinations by DoD to see if the condition has improved, worsened or become stable enough to assign a permanent rating.

“The agreement and spirit of IDES is that DoD would stay out of the rating business and leave the decision to VA,” he said. “The American Legion believes that DoD is violating the principles of IDES and should not be conducting ratings.”

According to Avila, the Legion suggests that DoD communicate with the VA and inquire if the individuals’ rating have changed. By doing so, he said the one rating decision will be maintained.

“The ability to add new conditions once a servicemember is enrolled in IDES can cause issues. Medical appointments and treatment do not stop once an individual is enrolled and the probability of receiving a new diagnosis is likely,” Avila said. “By allowing new conditions to be added, the servicemember will have a complete picture of their financial outlook and can concentrate on transitioning, instead of having to think about another VA claim.”

Lack of available resources for National Guard/reserve members

In the past, The American Legion has expressed concerns about Line of Duty investigations, lack of resources available, and the accurate dissemination of information on the IDES process for National Guard/reserve members. Avila said Line of Duty investigations are crucial to proving that the disability was incurred due to their service. Without it, they will be separated with no retirement or severance.

“The American Legion would also like to see improvements in other areas as well, specifically the pre-discharge program previously referred to as BDD and the QS program,” Avila said. “Under BDD, transitioning servicemembers could file their VA disability claim between 60-180 days from their separation dates and those under 60 days could file under the QS program.”

Avila said the elimination of the QS program creates a serious concern for the Legion, especially in cases where the VA is quicker to grant service connection for conditions that are diagnosed while still in service as opposed to being diagnosed one day after.

“The goal of the program was to initiate the claim while the servicemember was still on active duty, shortening the gap from separation to the benefits receipt date. BDD intended to have the claims completed within 60 days of discharge,” he continued. “According to our two BDD field service officers, this goal was never reached. Almost all BDD claims were taking an average of 6-12 months after discharge to be completed, with QS claims taking even longer and earning the nickname ‘quick start, slow finish.’”

For Avila, he said better support is needed for National Guard and reserve members to ensure they don’t fall behind their active duty counterparts. The Legion supports a more robust presence of veterans service organizations and other private stakeholders on the DoD side.

“All of these challenges can be improved with better integration of stakeholders at all levels of the process,” Avila said. “We cannot allow this serve disparity in access of medical support between the military and veteran communities. These men and women who deserve these earned services must not continue to struggle unnecessarily.”