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VA, DoD call for better exit physicals

Dec. 6, 2012 - 03:23PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 6, 2012 - 03:23PM  |  
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More comprehensive separation physicals could soon be required for service members, even if they have no specific health complaints, to reduce problems down the road if they later file for benefits for a service-connected disability, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.

Panetta appeared at a joint press conference with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to talk about joint efforts between the two agencies to smooth the transition to from military service to civilian life.

Many veterans seeking benefits have trouble proving a service connection for their disability, a problem made worse by the">sometimes poor record-keeping in medical and administrative records often required for the VA to rule in a veteran's favor.

A long-term fix to the problem, under way for more than a decade, is creation of a joint DoD/VA electronic medical records system. Additionally, deployed units are now required to do a better job with administrative records that show troop movements and even specific missions that might be crucial in proving the service-connection of a disability.

But better record-sharing doesn't help if there is nothing in the record in the first place, Panetta said. That is why the Pentagon favors more detailed exit physicals that might document problems so a separating service member could immediately apply for disability compensation upon discharge, or years later of he faces a disability that could have a service-connected cause.

These steps will help future veterans but do little for those who have already filed claims and are stymied by a lack of supporting evidence. Shinseki said VA claims processors are trying to help veterans locate lost records or find other ways to prove a service connection for disability.

As of Dec. 3, VA had 896,000 pending claims, with 67 percent in processing for more than 125 days. Weekly VA workload reports that track progress on claims show that 821,000 are original claims. The reports do no indicate how many of the claims are delayed because of missing military records, but Shinseki said he knows this is a reason for part of the delay.

Panetta and Shinseki also are working on plans to integrate the DoD and VA medical systems, an idea also discussed for several years. They have asked their staffs to look at ways to accelerate the integration, and expect to discuss this issue in January when the two secretaries meet again to discuss cooperation.

Veterans, especially those trying to hold down post-service jobs while also seeking benefits and treatment from VA, are frustrated by a bureaucracy that for many seems outdated and slow. VA's inspector general described the Winston-Salem, N.C., office, for example, as a place where complicated claims files a foot thick or larger gather dust and threaten to topple over, symbolizing an era of paper-pushing that seems out of touch to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans compared to the high-tech military they just left.

Shinseki said progress is being made toward a mostly paperless claims system, which VA expects to be in use in all 56 regional offices by the end of 2013.

That won't solve everything, however; many veterans still complain about problems with even just trying to contact VA for information.

This can be an issue even for someone who understands the system. Rep.-elect Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a disabled veteran who was an assistant VA secretary working on programs to expand outreach to veterans, spent three days complaining on her Facebook page about problems she had reaching someone at VA. Nobody answered the phone; she left messages, scheduled call-backs from VA that never came and even spent 57 minutes on hold.

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