About 70,000 disabled veterans who served on active duty after 9/11, and were medically discharged with disability ratings of 20 percent or less, still have a shot to gain “retiree” status, with base shopping privileges and lifetime eligibility to TRICARE for them and families.
The catch is they have to know about this opportunity and to apply.
Applying is a breeze. Notifying eligible veterans they can apply is the greater challenge. Efforts to reach many of them by mail have been delayed.
To win an upgrade in disability rating, qualified vets don’t have to appear before one more medical or physical disability evaluation board. They only have to fill out a short application form, send it to a panel called the Physical Disability Board of Review (PDBR), and wait until the PDBR reviews all relevant health records and decides whether the veteran’s parent service did indeed low-ball their original disability rating.
For many years, the Army led the services in tweaking policy and using the VA Schedule for Rating Disabilities in ways that kept ill and injured soldiers from a combined rating of 30 percent or higher to quality for disability retirement. It was less costly to rate a single unfitting condition, ignore others and separate rather than retire soldiers, by awarding ratings of 0, 10 or 20 percent.
In 2008, Congress ordered the services to clean up their disability evaluation systems and end such practices. It also directed the Department of Defense to establish the PDBR with authority to re-examine medical files and, if appropriate, recommend that ratings of vets medically separated from Sept. 11, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2009, be raised to 30 percent or higher.
PDBR applicants don’t need to worry about a ratings downgrade. That’s prohibited. Yet more than three years after the PDBR began operating, only 6,800 veterans have applied for review. Of those, the PDBR has decided 3,800, recommending disability upgrade and retiree status for 27 percent. That’s down from a rate of 45 percent through 2011.
The services decide whether to accept PDBR recommendations to upgrade a rating to at least 30 percent and allow “retiree” status. Such a re-characterization triggers eligibility for retroactive retired pay back to date of discharge (minus previous separation pay) and full military retiree benefits.
TRICARE eligibility also is retroactive so a newly minted retiree able to document out-of-pocket medical costs since time of discharge can files a claim with TRICARE.
Most of 1033 veterans who have won “retiree” status through PDBR review are Army veterans.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: