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The Confederate Lawyer
August 19, 2008

The Seamless Transition
by Charles G. Mills

[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 her claim.

There are two areas in which a seamless connection can and should be made as soon as possible.

Disability Ratings
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.

Record Keeping
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 hold.

Interim Steps
“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 systems.

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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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