Retiring from the military and establishing a new career, especially in today’s economically uncertain times, is stressful for many. Add the complications that come from a service-related disability, and navigating the system can be overwhelming. Fortunately, a pilot program which has been in place at Joint Base Andrews for the past few months makes processing potential disability benefits claims easier for service members about to exit military service.
R. Thony Espinoza, OCONUS Integrated Disability Evaluation System Program manager, created the IDES system to help exiting veterans get their disability benefits claims processed as quickly as possible. The IDES system is required to guide veterans through the claims system within six months, using a single process shared by the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration. Espinoza knew from personal experience that it wasn’t always that way.
“When I retired in 2009, I waited one or two months to see the VA, and then I waited eight months before I received a letter saying what my evaluation would be. After that notification, I was still waiting, with only my retirement benefits, and looking for a job. I think my experience kind of helped,” Espinoza said. “It’s more streamlined. I was given a ball of clay, and they said, ‘OK, Thony, construct something from this.’”
The IDES process starts about six months before a service member expects to retire from the military. While still in active duty status, the service member meets with the Medical Evaluation Board to decide whether to remain in the military or exit. Once the decision is made to exit, the VA has 30 days to begin sending disability payments. That’s a far cry from Espinoza’s experience of waiting nearly a year for his disability payments to begin.
It all starts with a Military Service Record, known as a DD Form 214. Once the service member has that form in hand, the process can be expedited through the IDES.
Every part of the process is on a timeline, with deadlines for the DoD, the VA, the service member and the IDES staff. Those tightly controlled deadlines keep the process on track to get people their benefits quickly. The first service member to enter the IDES is on track to have her claim processed in full by Aug. 1, just six months after she first filed her claim. Congressional regulations allot up to 270 days for the process.
“(Congress) expects things to happen at a certain number of days,” said Maj. George I. Onyenyeonwu, TRICARE Operations and Patient Administration Flight Commander for the 779th Medical Support Squadron, based at Malcolm Grow Medical Clinic. “All overseas Air Force bases in Europe report to Andrews. Since December 2011, close to 100 people from USAFE have been through the system, coming from Aeromedical Evacuation missions, Aeromedical Staging Facility wounded warriors, and commercial transport.”
All are exiting the military for some medical reason.
“It makes them feel good, and makes us feel we’re taking care of our service members as they exit,” said Onyenyeonwu. “JBA is one of the ‘test pilot’ programs, as this is the first area where USAFE service members reach ‘home.’”
The other pilot program is based on the West Coast. Both programs report to national headquarters at Air Force Medical Operations Agency, San Antonio, Texas.
Service members using the IDES first meet with a VA representative while still overseasoften by webcam, if the technology exists at their current duty station. The information from that confidential interview goes into VA documents to help decide what subspecialists they’ll need to see while they are here. Within 96 hours of that first interview, Espinoza sends the service member instructions and an itinerary for their evaluation appointments.
“Many of them ask questions to sort of test my knowledge,” said VA Military Service Coordinator Andrea Nesbitt. “The Air Force people all know their stuff.”
Most service members have the same questions: when will I receive benefits? How much will they be? What can I claim? Will my children be eligible, as well? Nesbitt encourages everyone with a medical reason for separation from the military to file a claim, even if their health problems are not combat-related.
Espinoza arranges to have the service members flown to JBA from their current duty station on temporary duty status, books appointments for medical evaluation at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center, lines up lodging for the service member (usually here on JBA) and has them flown back to their assigned duty station after their evaluations at the VA are complete.
“Before they even arrive, we have everything lined up and booked,” said Espinoza. “Once they’re here, a duty driver takes them to all their appointments. We take ownership of that patient from the time they arrive. When we drive them to the VA building, we purposely drive through the Mall so they can see the Capitol building. A lot of them will never see D.C. again.”
Most patients have six or seven appointments each day over the course of two or three days, consisting of behavioral, medical and mental health evaluations. All are done back-to-back at the D.C. VA Medical Center.
With so many important appointments, many people bring a spouse or a fellow active duty service member to serve as a nonmedical attendantsomeone to walk through the system, take notes, ask questions and help remember the answers.
“It’s very overwhelming and a lot of them come here not knowing what to expect,” said Espinoza. “I make myself available to them, because they’re in a hotel and know no one; they need someone to reach out and touch them.”
Once they return to their home duty stations, they have their own case managers to help them continue the process. If they need a re-evaluation at some later date, Espinoza helps them set up the same webcam system to avoid having to fly back to return to the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center.
The program operates on a budget provided by the Air Force. On October 1, that budget will increase, allowing for an expanded staff.