Entering its fourth month without a critical automated medical screening portal Defense Health Agency officials are working overtime, processing individual medical data by hand so that prospective officers across the military may enroll in a service academy or sign reserve officers’ training corps contracts.

Since at least Sept. 22, the Department of Defense Medical Examination Review Board web portal for scheduling, tracking and approving medical exams has been down.

A maintenance message on the website says the agency “is working through the backlog of exams...as quickly as possible,” and Defense Health Agency spokesperson Peter Graves confirmed the “IT outage” when reached by Military Times.

The review board is responsible for medically screening applicants for admission to any of the military service academies, ROTC units of all branches and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, among other programs.

Combined, these commissioning programs produce the majority of new officers across the military.

Because most prospective officers can’t sign their contracts and begin receiving scholarship or stipend funds unless their medical fitness has been confirmed, review board officials have “employed a number of manual work arounds and has authorized civilian overtime pay to process applicant screening examinations and minimize impacts to the applicants and their respective commissioning programs,” Graves explained.

He said the agency has, “all hands on deck.”

But the outage has left prospective officers and recruiting officials responsible for shepherding their medical qualifications scrambling to comply with changing processes and requirements. One Army ROTC recruiting officer, who asked that Military Times withhold his name due to fears of retaliation, described the outage as “catastrophic.”

Graves, the DHA spokesperson, told Military Times that “there is no firm estimate as to when automation will be restored.” That’s led the agency to prioritize its manual processing efforts and place “emphasis on specific commissioning programs approaching critical [medical qualification] deadlines,” he explained.

When the outage first began, review board officials established a “here and how” manual workaround where they focused on qualifying applicants who wouldn’t need any more visits to doctors, according to an internal email from longtime deputy director Larry Mullen obtained by Military Times.

That move essentially halted the external specialist consultations necessary for prospective officers who found potentially disqualifying medical conditions in their initial physical exams — meaning that it couldn’t be the permanent workaround.

But then the outage endured. Graves said the board has been “improving manual processes” in order to restore those services. But that’s required “a number of manual work arounds and authoriz[ing] civilian overtime pay.”

The ROTC recruiter expressed fear that the review board may be “putting off so much to do the emergency ones right now that it’s going to cause a Veterans Administration-like backup” for 2023 national ROTC scholarship and service academy applicants who typically undergo medical screening during the spring and summer months before enrolling in college.

“Commissioning programs have expressed concern for interruptions to accessions, should the outage continue, but have thus far been patient and highly cooperative with respect to the manual workarounds underway,” conceded Graves. He added that the agency is “regularly” briefing senior officials from the commissioning programs on the status of “efforts underway in the DHA to restore automation.”

Cadets and midshipmen who are already on campus but not yet signed due to medical qualification delays are having to go without their monthly stipends and tuition payments, too, the recruiting officer said. They can receive retroactive benefits once cleared, though.

The outage and potential delays in officer medical qualifications also come during one of the most challenging recruiting environments the military has faced since the draft ended in 1973. Only the Marine Corps met its recruiting goals in fiscal 2022, according to a Pentagon official, and the Army fell short by around 15,000 troops.

The crisis has been less severe for officer recruiting, but a shrinking applicant pool for service academies and national ROTC scholarships has raised alarm for some observers. The Army even launched a dedicated advertising campaign, “Decide to Lead,” designed to woo high school students considering applying for ROTC scholarships.

The recruiting officer said he’s worried that new cadets encountering a broken medical system before even signing their contracts may get cold feet about joining.

“They’re going to say, ‘Well, this doesn’t seem like an organization that has their [expletive] together,’” the recruiter said. “And that’s because we’re not an organization that has our [expletive] together right now.”

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

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