Medical, physical evaluation board processes improving|
Posted 5/23/2011 Updated 5/23/2011
by Tammy Cournoyer
Air Force Wounded Warrior Program
5/23/2011 - RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- From the moment an Airman is injured or becomes ill, one of his or her biggest questions becomes: Can I stay on active-duty? Thus begins the wait. But, thanks to new processes, answers are coming much faster.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the number of service members processing through the Disability Evaluation System has steadily increased. Within the Air Force, the number of Airmen facing evaluation for fitness for service rose from 3,200 in 2001 to nearly 6,000 in 2010.
About 10 percent of active-duty, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard personnel facing disability evaluation each year have combat-related injuries and illnesses. Treatment and evaluation for these Air Force Wounded Warriors is a priority.
Over the past several years, the increasing number of cases meeting a medical evaluation board at a medical treatment facility resulted in an increase and backlog within the phase of the DES known as the physical evaluation board. By spring 2010, the cases awaiting PEB review reached a high of 1,424.
"Airmen waited up to 110 days after their case was received by the PEB to find out whether the board found them fit to continue in service or not," said Lt. Col. Lorianne Hodge, deputy chief of the Air Force's Physical Disabilities Division at AFPC.
In response, the medical and force support communities partnered to increase manpower at the PEB to meet the increased workload. This included adding civilian positions and reserve augmentation to more than double the number of cases processed through the PEB. Within six months, the number of cases awaiting the board was successfully reduced; and Airmen now face an average of only a 14-day wait for results after the medical case is complete and forwarded to AFPC.
The evaluation system begins when the local MTF conducts an MEB charged with identifying and documenting conditions that may limit an Airman's ability to continue military service. This board can determine whether an Airman has a medical condition which may not be fit for active duty and requires review by the physical evaluation board section at the Air Force Personnel Center. AFPC has both an informal and formal PEB process.
If a case is forwarded to AFPC, it begins with an informal PEB which conducts a records-only review of the Airman's medical case. If the Airman is found unfit for continued service, the PEB assigns a combined disability percentage rating for those conditions which make the member unfit, and the Airman is either separated from service or retired, depending on the overall disability rating and number of years of service.
If the Airman disagrees with the results of the informal PEB, he or she may request a hearing with a formal PEB, where the Airman will be assisted in his or her appeal by an attorney and have the opportunity to appear in person before the board.
Further improvements in Air Force disability evaluations are coming as the Air Force implements the Integrated Disability Evaluation System at all bases by the end of September. At present, nearly half of all Air Force bases have transitioned to this new system designed and directed for implementation across the Department of Defense.
The IDES was developed to increase transparency; eliminate redundancies and discrepancies between service disability evaluations and the Department of Veterans Affairs disability claims process; and to decrease the time between an Airman's separation or retirement from military service and the start of Veterans Affairs disability benefits.
Key features of the integrated system include coordinating with the VA to consolidate the health exams and initial disability rating determination. Under the previous system, the PEB evaluated and rated only those conditions that prevented an Airman from continuing on active duty, while the VA evaluated and rated all service-connected conditions, and only after the veteran separated or retired. The services completed health exams for the "unfit" conditions, while the VA completed health exams for all service-connected conditions listed on the VA claim form.
Now, if the PEB determines an Airman is unfit for retention, the board applies the disability ratings determined by the VA. Within 30 days of medical separation or retirement, the Airman who is now separated or retired receives a VA benefits letter.
Additional information on the MEB and PEB process can be found on the Air Force personnel services website at https://gum-crm.csd.disa.mil and do a keyword search for MEB. For more information about the Air Force Wounded Warrior program go to http://www.woundedwarrior.af.mil.