DoD disability board understaffed

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

A special board established by Congress to review and raise any low-ball disability ratings the services awarded to injured or ailing members since 9-11 needs four times as many physicians as it has now to ensure timely action on a rising number of applications, says the board’s top officer.

Michael F. LoGrande, president of the Defense Department’s Physical Disability Board of Review, said the PDBR, in its first 10 months, has received only 876 applications. It adjudicated 235 cases so far and recommended higher disability ratings for 136 veterans — 58 percent of cases reviewed.

The potential pool of applicants is estimated at 77,000, LoGrande said, so applications received to date represent just over one percent of the total number of former service members eligible to apply for a ratings upgrade.

The PDBR recommendations are delivered to service secretaries who are raising disability ratings to at least 30 percent, the threshold for veterans to gain disability retirement status from their branch of service. That means eligibility for a lifetime annuity, TRICARE health benefits for the retiree and his or her family, and military base privileges including discount shopping.

LoGrande said the three military physicians first assigned to the board — one of whom has retired — aren’t nearly enough for the workload ahead. It will need at least 12 more just to comply with a lawsuit-induced agreement DoD has made to expedite rating reviews of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans diagnosed with PTSD, post-traumatic stress, when discharged.

LoGrande predicts the services won’t be able to find that many doctors for the PDBR, particularly in wartime. So the likely solution will be for DoD to contract for the services of civilian physicians including retired military.

For decades, the services were allowed to ignore the VASRD when rating certain unfitting conditions, including post-traumatic stress. Two years ago, in the wake of the Walter Reed scandal, Congress ordered the PDBR established to correct past wrongs but only for veterans discharged with ratings below 30 percent since Sept. 11, 2001. Case review began last May.

“The way DoD adjudicated PTSD cases in the past was admittedly wrong,” said LoGrande. “We — the collective DoD — should have been applying the rules in accordance with VASRD 4.129, the paragraph that addresses PTSD. So we admittedly misapplied it.”

The risk to the veteran of using the PDBR versus seeking disability review from the Army, Navy or Air Force boards for correction of military records, is that, by law, PDBR decisions can’t be appealed within DoD. So PDBR physicians use great care in reviewing these records, LoGrande said. “Our physicians take darn near eight hours to review each case,” he said. LoGrande is an Air Force civilian employee because that service is tasked with running the board for the entire Defense Department. But LoGrande also is an Air Force Reserve colonel.

Applications are found online at:

www.health.mil/About_MHS/Organizations/MHS_Offices_and_Programs/PDBR.aspx