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Review board grants few medical retirements

by Karen Jowers - Army Times

Staff Sgt. Dwayne Fitzpatrick has nothing but praise for the doctor who treated him at Fort Stewart, Ga., in the first steps of the Army’s process to determine if he was fit to continue on duty. He has a different opinion about the bureaucracy.

In May, a physical evaluation board notified Fitzpatrick, who has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes widespread muscle pain and fatigue, that it had decided to rate him 20 percent disabled. That is 10 percentage points shy of what is needed for medical retirement.

Officials in the patient affairs division of the hospital then offered him a lump sum of about $23,000, Fitzpatrick said. “That was what I was worth, and she came up with that figure pretty quickly,” said Fitzpatrick, of Orlando, Fla., an 11-year Florida National Guard veteran who deployed to Saudi Arabia in 2002.

After he discovered errors in the packet that was submitted, including the fact that most of the doctor’s documentation was removed, Fitzpatrick appealed. He presented the new information, including the doctor’s original information, to the board at the beginning of June.

Fitzgerald won the appeal, receiving a disability rating of 40 percent, and was medically retired on July 15. He now receives $1,234 a month.

“We don’t care about the amount of money,” Fitzpatrick said. “We just want our medical care. I’ve met about 25 to 30 people, and only three of us have gotten 30 percent or more. The others are 10, 20, or zero percent. Six appealed their decisions and they were left unchanged.”

Although the military does a good job taking care of those with serious injuries that are visible, such as loss of limbs, “they’re doing a bad job compensating people for things you can’t see,” said Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center.

Robinson said anecdotal information indicates review boards are underevaluating service members’ medical conditions by 10 to 20 percentage points.

If a soldier is determined to have at least a 30 percent disability, he is medically retired. But if the soldier does not have at least 20 years of service, anything less than a 30 percent rating can result only in a severance payment.

According to an Army information paper, disability severance pay is equal to two months’ basic pay for each year of service, up to a maximum — at most, 24 months of basic pay.

“When they’re medically retired or take severance, it goes against the Defense Department budget,” Robinson said. “It looks as if DoD may be saving money by not correctly evaluating these soldiers, and that’s going to hurt them down the road.”

A ‘performance-based’ system

“The physical evaluation board is a performance-based system,” Col. Fred Schumaker, executive officer of the Army Physical Disability Agency, said in an e-mail response to questions.

“What the board does is take a look at the diagnoses, rates those that are listed as falling below standards and makes an independent determination if that condition itself leads to the physical unfitness of the soldier,” Schumaker said. “If the answer to that is yes, it is rated. If the answer to that question is no, the condition is not rated. This is established by law.”

The services rate only the “unfitting conditions,” he said.

Since Oct. 1, the Army’s Physical Disability Agency has received about 8,200 cases for determination of whether a soldier was physically fit to continue duty, said Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, spokesman for the Army Human Resources Command. Of those, 59 percent were separated with severance pay, which means the Army ruled their disability was less than 30 percent.

Only 8 percent were permanently retired.

Of the others, 10 percent were separated without benefits; 17 percent were placed on the temporary disabled retirement list, where they can remain for up to five years; and 6 percent were found fit for duty.

Along with underrating troops’ conditions, Robinson contends the medical board process takes too long, leaving troops in limbo about their future. “It’s unconscionable that you could survive Iraq and come back and wait 10 to 16 months” for resolution, he said.

But medical evaluation results are not forwarded to the Army Physical Disability Evaluation System until the soldier has received whatever medical care he needs, Arata said.

“In the medical community, we take the time necessary to treat the soldier fully and bring the soldier to optimal health before forwarding Medical Evaluation Board results,” he said. “The system is designed to give soldiers every opportunity to get well and return to duty.”

In the third quarter of fiscal 2004, ending in June, the average medical board processing time was 83 days, Arata said.