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October 21, 2002

USAFE adopts VA program to hasten disability benefits

From: Pacific Stars and Stripes, Japan
Oct. 21, 2002

By Marni McEntee, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Monday, October 21, 2002

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — As soon as Richard Rhodes retired from the Air Force last September, he filed for Veterans Affairs disability benefits.

But before he had the chance to trade in his service blues for civilian clothes, he learned it could take up to 24 months for the Air Force to determine if he would be compensated for service-related disabilities, which could range from hearing loss to lower-back pain.

And that’s too long, according to Rhodes and Senior Master Sgt. George Labbay.

“On Sept. 1, my paperwork got sent to the big black hole in Washington, and that’s the last I heard of it,” said Rhodes, 40, a retired master sergeant.

That’s because Air Force members who separate or retire in Germany — unlike their Army counterparts — have been unable to use a VA program called Benefits Delivery at Discharge. That program is meant to expedite a servicemember’s disability benefits when he separates or retires by allowing him to file his benefit paperwork locally.

In Rhodes’ case, that would mean he could get all his disability paperwork done in his own back yard, at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. And he could begin the process up to 90 days before separation.

Soldiers using the benefits delivery system often have their benefits’ evaluation completed within weeks of leaving the service.

Since the Army began using the system in June 2001, 476 members have filed disability claims at Landstuhl, according to an e-mail statement from VA representative Frank Deninno.

Labbay, who is planning to retire from the Air Force in January, and Rhodes had been working together to push the Air Force into changing its system.

Their work, and the efforts of others, apparently began to pay off last week.

The Air Force Personnel Center sent out an e-mail on Oct. 10 authorizing members of U.S. Air Forces in Europe units who plan to remain in the USAFE area of operations after they separate or retire to process their disability paperwork at Landstuhl, personnel center spokeswoman Tech. Sgt. Dawn Hart said.

In addition, the original medical records of individuals applying for VA disability will be forwarded to Landstuhl within five days of separation or retirement, the statement said.

“The message should get to all personnel offices by next week,” Hart said. Those who separate and return to the United States will follow the original system, Hart said.

Under that system, the servicemember’s medical records are returned to the site nearest where he planned to live following retirement or separation, said Diane Fuller, assistant director of the veteran’s service staff at the Veterans Affairs central office in Washington, D.C.

Rhodes said Friday he was pleased that his actions had helped change things.

“Obviously, I’m not going to be affected — my records are long gone,” Rhodes said. “But people following in my shoes will have a smoother transition into the retirement world and that’s a good thing.”

Labbay was not available to comment on the changes.

Eventually, the Air Force Instruction on the handling of VA disability benefits will have to change, said Senior Master Sgt. Kevin White, superintendent of field operations for the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.

Once that is done, an Air Force member separating overseas will be able to schedule a medical examination through Landstuhl, have the results evaluated, then, once the servicemember’s official separation or retirement papers come through, make a disability determination.

The benefits delivery program started last year to improve service, saves federal money and increases efficiency, according to a memorandum of understanding between the VA and the U.S. European Command.

Today, more than 100 military installations in the United States, along with Landstuhl in Germany and one in South Korea, are conducting the program. Air Force members have not been able to take part in the program because the service would not provide a member’s original service medical records to Landstuhl.

Under the interim changes, that is now possible.

© 2002 Stars and Stripes.