On Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Senator Patty Murray continued to ask questions Wednesday into why military service members have to wait so long to receive their medical disability rating and benefits.
That waiting period has been described by injured soldiers as extremely stressful -- and could be contributing to mental health issues, drug abuse, even suicide.
After six years in the Army and two tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan, Specialist Christopher Boettcher has a heart condition that prevents him from deploying. He’s spent the past seven months waiting for the Army and the Veterans Administration to determine how sick he is and what his disability benefits should be.
“Seven months just to get to first step,” said Boettcher. “I had to go to the Ombudsman and magically they have some powers. So three days later, they gave me a call, but that's still step one.”
Boettcher’s story is just one of hundreds coming from military service members.
In a Veterans Affairs Committee Hearing Wednesday morning, Murray hoped to get down to the bottom of why service members and their families are having to wait well over a year for answers.
“Recently it has come to my attention that some of our service members involved with the disability evaluation process are facing retribution and unsupportive behavior from their chains of command while waiting for disability decision,” said Murray during the hearing.
“So what we've learned the process put into place at that time did not function as originally designed,” responded Dr. Jo Ann Rooney with the Department of Defense.
But that system, put in place five years ago, has proved to be complicated and difficult to understand.
Murray has revealed troubling information in an investigation into the Joint Disability Evaluation System after it was discovered 40 percent of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) cases at Joint Base Lewis McChord were reversed to save money.
“They have encountered inadequate VA medical examinations, especially in relation to traumatic brain injury,” said Murray.
And errors were discovered, which in some cases impacted the level of benefits the veteran should have received.
“The sergeant majors are now understanding that this is a problem that we have to take on as two departments and not just as one, and I think that education is happening,” said Dr. John Gingrich with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Well we have a lot of work to do,” said Murray.
“Yes, ma’am, we do,” said Gingrich.
After the complaints that PTSD diagnoses were improperly overturned, Army officials said they will review the diagnoses at all of its medical facilities going back to October 2001.