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Program reduces disability benefits waiting period after separation

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Air Force officials held a training conference recently to teach those operating the Integrated Disability Evaluation System how to process service members who, because of medical conditions, may no longer be able to serve in the Air Force.

The conference, held jointly between the Air Force Personnel Center and the Air Force Medical Operations Agency, was attended by more than 250 base-level physical evaluation board liaison officers, who guide service members through the disability evaluation system, and medical physicians, who recommend service members for the disability evaluation process.

The Integrated Disability Evaluation System combines the military services' disability evaluation and that of the Department of Veterans Affairs benefits claims processes into a streamlined process to minimize the gap between service separation and VA benefits delivery. The program was introduced in 2007 as a pilot program at three military bases and steadily expanded to full Defense Department-wide implementation at the end of September.

The IDES provides a more seamless transition to veteran disability benefits with more consistent ratings between DOD and VA than the previous system, said Lt. Col. Lorianne Hodge, the Air Force Personnel Center's Air Force Physical Disability Division deputy division chief.

"Physical evaluation board liaison officers are the 'boots on the ground' responsible for compiling and routing all case paperwork and are the primary point of contacts for Airmen as they go through the process," Hodge said. "Equally important are the physicians who make the determination that an Airman must be considered for potential separation or retirement."

The main goal of the training conference was to arm the PEBLOS and providers with the information and tools to process the member through the disability system effectively and succinctly, said Maj. Teresa Clark, the Air Force Medical Operations Agency health benefit analyst and IDES program manager.

Under the previous Disability Evaluation System, Clark said, the processing time was significantly longer. This included a set of medical examinations by military physicians, a series of boards to determine if the member was still able to serve, and if not, assignment of a disability rating used by the Defense Department to calculate disability disposition. Service members could not begin to apply for disability compensation and benefits from VA until after receiving a discharge date from their service.

With the new IDES, she said, "there is only one set of medical exams, performed to the Veteran's Affairs standards, which provides medical information needed by both departments."

The VA issues disability ratings that will immediately be used for veterans' compensation and benefits once the service member is no longer active duty.

The integrated process still takes a little more than nine months, Hodge said, but now when the service member is finished with the military process, a disability claim is already filed with the VA so veteran disability compensation and benefits can begin after one month in veteran status. That is the earliest allowable under current law.

"Conferences like this provide for an open, candid forum to exchange input with the field on how the (IDES) process is operating and to foster ideas on how the system can be improved," said Bret Stevens, the DOD's director of transition policy for the office of wounded warrior care and transition policy. "It's also an opportunity for conference attendees to receive an update of where the program is currently at and for me personally to get an insight from those who work closely with the individuals who are transitioning through the process.

The people who attended this conference "are truly committed to providing a program that meets both the individuals' and services' needs," Stevens said.