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Disability evaluation system needs 'top-down' overhaul, officials say

WASHINGTON (AFRNS) -- One of the Defense Department's top officials recently said he is not surprised that servicemembers get different disability ratings from each of the services, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration.

They are three different systems governed by their own sets of laws and rate disabilities using scales unique to each department, said Dr. David S. C. Chu, the defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness.

Each system has "fundamentally different approaches to the basis on which you should rate the individual. It is, therefore, not surprising that they reach different answers," Chu said.

"From the individual's perspective, this is surely complex ... and frustrating in its character," he said.

Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee on March 8, Dr. Chu expressed confidence that, with legislative support, the system could be fixed.

DOD currently is revising its disability evaluation system. Each service manages its own evaluation process within the framework of the DOD system. In fiscal 2006, service eligibility board caseloads were 13,162 for the Army; 5,684 for the naval services; and 4,139 for the Air Force. In 2001, the numbers were 7,218 for the Army; 4,999 for the naval services; and 2,816 in the Air Force.

Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant defense secretary for health affairs, said servicemembers deserve fair, consistent and timely determinations.

"Complex procedures should be streamlined or removed. The system must not be adversarial, and people should not have to go through a maze or prove themselves to get the benefits they deserve," Dr. Winkenwerder said.

He said now is the time to question the system and make changes needed for servicemembers and their families.

"It's turning back to the bureaucracy and saying, 'Why can't we do it this way,'" Dr. Winkenwerder said. "If it's not meeting the needs of the customer, it's not getting the job done".

Dr. Winkenwerder is stepping down and moving to a job in the private sector. President Bush has nominated Dr. S. Ward Casscells to replace Dr. Winkenwirder. Dr. Casscells is a professor of medicine and public health at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. The Senate must confirm the doctor before he takes office. The nominee has served as medical adviser in Baghdad and understands the complexities of the position he is moving into, Dr. Winkenwerder said in a Feb. 23 interview with American Forces Press Service.