Why DoD to Lose Power to Rate Disabilities
Tom Philpott | October 11, 2007
Why DoD Likely Will Lose Authority to Rate Disabilities
Congressional action to end the services’ authority to assign disability ratings and put the Department of Veterans Affairs in charge can’t come too soon for retired Army Lt. Col. Michael A. Parker.
Parker, 45, has complained for a couple of years to lawmakers and to the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission about lax DoD oversight of the disability rating process and unfair disability decisions across the services.
He wasn’t alone. Veteran service groups and plenty of individual veterans had beefs too. The Government Accountability Office released a critical report on military disability systems in 2006. Momentum for reform got a huge lift last February when the Washington Post exposed bureaucratic neglect of outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
But Parker showed special doggedness. He attended most VDBC meetings, testified himself several times, and created slideshows of facts and data on the issues for commissioners and journalists. Informing his arguments were his own experiences with the Army’s disability process and his volunteer work helping other members, even members of other services, through their own maze. With each one, Parker said, he found fresh evidence that laws and regulations are ignored in holding back benefits.
This month Parker felt satisfaction when the VDBC released its report. Among its 113 recommendations are three calling for immediate action to correct disability evaluations and one long-term fix all evaluations to VA. Defense officials or the services should:
-- Reassess past disability ratings set at less than 30 percent for service member separated as unfit to determine if the rating was fair, given disturbing inconsistencies found across services ratings and between ratings awarded by DoD and those routinely raised later by the VA.
-- Adopt a consistent and uniform policy for rating disabilities by requiring the services to adhere to the VA rating schedule.
-- Reconsider a policy that allows discharge of an individual without any disability compensation, as late as eight years into their active duty careers, if found unfit based on medical conditions that likely existed before they entered service. Parker said the services have shifted the burden of proof that a condition didn’t exist prior to service onto some members.
The long-term recommendation is to give VA sole responsibility for rating disabilities. The services would continue to determine fitness for duty but would get out of the disability rating business.
Most of these recommendations were made earlier, either by the Independent Review Group established by DoD to improve treatment of wounded warriors in the wake of the Walter Reed stories or by the White House-appointed Dole-Shalala Commission which released its finding in July.
To Parker, the most compelling recommendation by the VDBC is to have the services reassess rating decisions for tens of thousands of members who were denied disability retirement and separated with less than a 30 percent rating, going back at least to the year 2000.
“They are basically saying that those decisions are not to be trusted and DoD needs to make sure they were complying with all the regulations and policies,” said Parker.
Parker, who suffers from a disease called reactive arthritis, likely triggered by contaminated drinking water, went through a medical evaluation board and, not long before he retired with 21 years served, a physical evaluation board. He was found fit. He later learned that an Air Force member who required the same immune-suppressive drug was deemed unfit and separated because the drug made him unfit for the rigors of service. He investigated and found other disparities in the disability process.
Studies and research done for the VDBC reinforced Parker’s belief that Defense officials for years should have been monitoring how disability ratings are set by the services but instead “were absent without leave,” he said.
The VDBC uncovered a March 1985 legal opinion from the DoD general counsel that allowed the services, without notifying Congress, to begin to hold down disability ratings. The services were to stop setting disability ratings based on all ailments and injuries found during medical evaluations and to start basing them only conditions that make a member unfit for duty.
The intent, it appears, was to save on retirement and medical costs. If a service discharges a member as unfit with a rating of 20 percent or less, he or she gets only disability severance. A 30 percent or higher rating brings “retiree” status, a lifetime annuity and lifetime military healthcare.
From 2000 through 2006, the military discharged 83,000 members as unfit. Only 15,463 of them (19 percent) got a rating of 30 percent or higher. The Army allowed 30 percent or higher for only 13 percent of members separated as unfit. The Navy had the highest proportion, 36 percent. But Parker said that was skewed by another troubling service- unique practice.
“What you don’t see there is that a lot of sailors don’t even make it to that level because [physical evaluation] boards are finding them fit. They go back to their commands, are told there that, ‘You can’t deploy because of this medical condition. Therefore we’re going to administratively separate you.’ They get no benefits. That is wrong,” said Parker.
All of these problems can be traced to DoD’s unwillingness to rate disabilities correctly, Parker said. Besides focusing on “unfitting” conditions, the services are allowed to cherry picked lowest-rated conditions, use VA rating criteria selectively and developed their own criteria for determining that a service member’s condition existed before he or she entered service.
Parker has seen it all. He faults DoD for letting it happen.
“It wasn’t until the Walter Reed stories broke that DoD started trying to take the reins back, to get control” Parker said.
A lot of commissions, committees, panels and auditors are saying: too little, too late.