Colorado Springs Military Newspaper Group

Fort Carson Mountaineer

Senate staffers review DES pilot

by Roger G. Meyer

Evans Army Community Hospital Public Affairs Office

Two Senate Veterans Affairs Committee staff members visited Evans Army Community Hospital leaders June 4 as part of a fact-finding trip on the Disability Evaluation

System pilot.

Dahlia Melendrez, Chief Benefits Counsel, and Amanda Meredith, Minority General Counsel, received briefings on the current status from EACH leaders and staff.

Numerous local and regional Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration leaders also attended and provided reports on their DES achievements and actions to date. After these meetings, the Senate staff members met with Fort Carson Soldiers involved in the DES pilot and visited the Soldier Family Assistance Center and Medical Evaluation Board Center.

As Soldiers continue to deploy overseas, many other active and Reserve component Soldiers affiliated with Fort Carson are currently undergoing the Medical Evaluation Board process and awaiting determinations on their careers in the Army.

The MEB process is used to determine if Soldiers are able to continue in uniform or need to transition back into civilian life. The joint Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs DES pilot began at Fort Carson and several other installations last year and has become a key component in the MEB process, according to a joint DoD and VA commanders brief from November 2008.

As designed, DES simplifies and restructures how servicemembers are evaluated for continued military service and to qualify for benefits as a result of wounds, illnesses or injuries, according to the brief. The program eliminates duplicative DoD and VA practices; it shortens the disability claims process by engaging the VA as soon as a servicemember is referred for possible disability evaluation; and it integrates new case management features to ensure a smooth transition for Soldiers who must transition to VA health care.

Implementation of the new system faces congressional scrutiny. In April, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, directed members of his DoD/VA Senior Oversight Committee to provide him a progress report on the DES pilot. In addition to gathering and reviewing the latest statistics, the senator also wants to delay full implementation of the DES program until the Government Accountability Office completes its review of the program, according to the directive.

The fact-finding visit by Melendrez and Meredith was a result of that directive and also provided an opportunity for EACH staff to look more closely at the DES pilot.

“This was an excellent opportunity for us to review the current state of the DES pilot, and to conduct frank discussions with VA leaders,” said Col. Jimmie O. Keenan, EACH commander. “The DES is a good concept and should prove very effective in reducing the time Soldiers have to wait for disability determinations.”

The DES pilot enables Soldiers to complete the DoD and the VA processes at the same time. While Soldiers may stay on active duty longer, when they are discharged, they receive all of their benefits simultaneously. Prior to DES, Soldiers had to wait from six-18 months after discharge to get their VA benefits.

“Our Soldiers deserve the best services the Army and VA have to offer. An efficient and effective DES can help provide this,” said Keenan.

A government determination on fully implementing the DES across all military services is expected later this year.

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