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70,000 vets still have chance to gain retiree stat

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bout 70,000 disabled veterans who served on active duty after 9/11 and were medically discharged with disability ratings of 20 percent or less may still gain “retiree” status with base shopping privileges and lifetime eligibility to TRICARE for them and families.

The catch is they have to know about this opportunity and to apply.

Applying is a breeze. Notifying eligible veterans they can apply is the greater challenge. Efforts to reach many of them by mail have been delayed.

To win an upgrade in disability rating, qualified vets only have to fill out a short application form, send it to a panel called the Physical Disability Board of Review and wait for the board to review all relevant health records and decide whether the original disability rating was lowballed.

For years, the Army had used the VA Schedule for Rating Disabilities to keep ill and injured soldiers from a combined rating of 30 percent or higher to quality for disability retirement.

It was less costly to rate a single unfitting condition, ignore others and separate rather than retire soldiers, by awarding ratings of 0, 10 or 20 percent.

In 2008, Congress ordered the services to end such practices. It also directed the Department of Defense to establish the disabilities board with authority to re-examine medical files and, if appropriate, recommend that ratings of vets medically separated from Sept. 11, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2009, be raised to 30 percent or higher.

Yet more than three years after the review board began operating, only 6,800 veterans have applied for review. Of those, the board has decided 3,800, recommending disability upgrade and retiree status for 27 percent. That’s down from a rate of 45 percent through 2011.

The services decide whether to accept the board’s recommendations to upgrade a rating to at least 30 percent and allow “retiree” status, which triggers eligibility for retroactive retired pay back to date of discharge (minus separation pay previously awarded) and full military retiree benefits.

TRICARE eligibility also is retroactive.

Most of 1,033 veterans who have won “retiree” status through disabiity board review are Army veterans.

The top three medical conditions given revised ratings were post-traumatic stress, back ailments and arthritis.

To date, Air Force and Coast Guard authorities have approved every board recommendation. The Army has accepted 98 percent. The Navy, for sailors and Marine applicants, has approved 94 percent.

“The services are probably not too crazy about having their homework checked. That’s what we do,” disabilities board director James Davis told the Defense Department’s Recovering Warrior Task Force on Tuesday.

If the board ever got negative “pushback” from the services it doesn’t any more, Davis said.

What continues to disappoint is the number of applicants. Only eight percent of eligible veterans have applied for review, a rate that suggests many don’t know the board exists.

In January 2012, the board unveiled a plan for a phased mailing of information packets and application forms to every qualified veteran with a current address on file at the VA.

The first batch of 15,000 was to be sent to those medically separated in 2001 (post-9/11), 2002 or 2003. Three more mailings were planned through October 2012.

It didn’t happen. The VA did a mailing of 17,2000 packets in May 2012 and then the outreach effort was suspended for 15 months. In June 2012, the disabilities board was directed to focus its attention on a special mental health diagnosis review ordered by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

The Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis, Wash., reportedly had routinely modified mental health diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder to conditions that resulted in lower disability ratings for soldiers.

That led to sending letters to every veteran separated from 9/11 through April 30, 2012, who completed a medical evaluation board and during disability evaluation had their PTSD diagnosis or anxiety or depressive disorder diagnosis changed or eliminated.

As a result, the services passed along almost 940 applications to the disabilities board, mostly from soldiers, to review medical records and determine whether applicants were hurt by decisions made during their original disability review process.

This fall, VA sent 20,000 packets to VA addresses for qualified veterans separated through year 2005. More mailings are planned every eight weeks, Davis said, until the effort is complete sometime next year.

Tom Philpott served in the U.S. Coast Guard as an information officer and was a reporter and senior editor for Army Times Publishing Company from 1977 to 1993. Email milupdate@aol.com or twitter: Tom Philpott @Military_Update

Latest Activity: Nov 03, 2013 at 8:59 AM

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