[Breaker: Practical Steps To Improve the Process Now]
The policy of the United States government is to create a “seamless
transition” of soldiers who are permanently disabled by war injuries
from the care of the Armed Forces to that of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs
(VA). Although this is an ambitious and unrealistic overall goal, some
elements are badly needed and attainable now.
The goal is unrealistic because the transition is from a military
culture, which executes any task assigned to it as quickly as it can,
to the VA, which is extraordinarily unproductive and has a backlog
of about one million undecided claims. It is also unrealistic because
the Army and the Marine Corps are dedicated to building self-reliant
people who take the initiative, and the VA issubject to a detailed
Congressional requirement that it help each veteran develop his or
There are two areas in which a seamless connection can and should be
made as soon as possible.
The first is disability ratings. The conformity of this aspect of the
military system to the VA system should be done quickly and retroactively.
One significant difference between the systems has been that the
Armed Forces only rated the most serious injury, and the VA rated
the cumulative impact of all injuries. For example, if someone had
three 20-percent disabling injuries in three parts of the body, he
or she would be rated 20 percent disabled by the Army or Marine Corps,
and a month or two later be rated40-percent or even 50-percent disabled
by the VA.
This difference is problematic. Only warriors with injuries that are
30-percent or more disabling may keep their military title, use both
VA and military hospitals, and choose either VA or military benefits.
If the disability is a 50-percent or more permanently disabling combat
injury, veterans may receive both the VA and the military benefits.
Congress should require the Board for the Review of Military Records
to upgrade all medical discharges of veterans rated 30-percent or more
disabled by the VA within months of their discharge.
The second area is record keeping. The United States has military records
going back to the War of Independence. It also lost a huge number of
records in a fire in the building in St. Louis where the Army service
records are kept. Modern military records consist of medical records,
pay records, and service records that include assignments, promotions,
discipline, commendations, awards, and training records.
The VA keeps fully electronic imaged medical records of each veteran
currently being treated in its hospitals. These are accessible by any
VA hospital in the country. The Armed Forces are trying to move to
a similar system. This should be done as quickly as possible, and the
military medical records should be accessible by any doctor treating
the veterans, as well as by any VA claims examiner and anyone who reviews
the claims examiner’s work.
We should go beyond this, however. All military records, even those
only of interest to genealogists and historians, should be imaged,
so that nothing will be lost if there is ever a repetition of the St.
Louis fire. These records should be accessible online by the VA and
by state, county, and city veterans’ service
agencies. They should also be accessible to veterans’ organizations both
to help veterans prepare claims to the VA and to verify the veterans’ eligibility
for membership. This would eliminate the delays the VA and the veterans
have in receiving requested records, as well as the mistakes made in
the archaic system of retrieving these records by hand.
The main VA file for each veteran is a claims file. It is a cumbersome
file of hundreds of pages that are not indexed; some of the pages physically
fall out when the file is handled. Sometimes one document refers to
another one that cannot be found. A veteran who appeals an adverse
decision physically makes at least one round trip to Washington, D.C.
Each veteran is entitled to at least one free photocopy of the file.
Converting this system to an electronic one would eliminate the delays
in shipping the file back and forth to Washington, D.C., as well as
the delays in copying the file for the veteran’s attorney. These
delays can take months, and during this time the whole process is on
“Seamless transition” is a nice slogan, but an immediate partial
practical step would be to eliminate the inequities in disability ratings
and to put all military and VA records into modern compatible record
Back to The Confederate
The Confederate Lawyer column by Charles G. Mills is copyright © 2008
by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved.
Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the
New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in
many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles
about the law.
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