Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : May 2007

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 Bar Bulletin Focus

Veterans Law   

Seamless Transition: Important Information for Veterans and Those Who Serve Them

Around Washington, D.C., “seamless transition” has received a lot of airtime and front-page coverage. But what is seamless transition? Perhaps more importantly, what does seamless transition really mean for the hundreds of thousands of veterans who live in Maryland? Attorneys across the state should be aware, if not knowledgeable, of the opportunities and benefits that the seamless transition initiative provides for veterans – many of whom are or will be clients.

Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) began in October 2001 and supports combat operations in Afghanistan and other locations, and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) began in March 2003 and supports combat operations in Iraq and other locations. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued in June 2006, more than 1.3 million U.S. military servicemembers had served or were serving in OEF or OIF. Many have expressed concerns about the assistance with which servicemembers are provided when they return to civilian life. It was in response to these concerns that the concept of seamless transition developed.

Seamless transition is an initiative jointly sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD). In January 2005, VA established an Office of Seamless Transition, whose Chief reports directly to the Principal Deputy Undersecretary for Health. The office employs representatives from the Veterans Heath Administration (VHA), representatives from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), an active-duty Marine Corps officer and a representative from the Army Wounded Warrior program. According to its most recent fact sheet, the office seeks to improve the transition from the military to VA by ensuring efficient claims processing prior to release from active duty; by coordinating case management for patients’ medical and benefit needs; by improving outreach efforts; by ensuring accurate, high-quality education of VA staff; and by strengthening the partnership between VA and DoD.

In terms of claims processing and case management, VHA social workers and VBA counselors are located at 10 military treatment facilities (MTFs), including Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and National Navy Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. These professionals provide information about the various VA benefits and services available, including health care and readjustment programs, disability compensation, the Servicemembers Group Life Insurance Program and educational and housing benefits. VBA counselors assist servicemembers in completing benefits claims and in gathering supporting evidence; beginning these processes prior to discharge from military service helps eliminate any gaps in services or benefits. Servicemembers are then given VA contact information for the appropriate OEF/OIF coordinator and case manager (located at each medical center and regional office) when they are transferred to another medical facility, released or awaiting discharge or retirement orders.

Outreach is an essential component of the seamless transition process. In addition to distributing educational videos and written materials to returning servicemembers, VA actively participates in discharge planning and orientation sessions. Military Service Briefings (which include separation and retirement seminars, pre- and post-deployment briefings, and the formal Transition Assistance Program) are designed to ensure that servicemembers know about their VA benefits, and to provide any other necessary assistance. For those leaving active duty due to service-connected medical problems, the outreach effort is intensified to ensure a full understanding of the VA compensation process and vocational rehabilitation and employment programs.

The seamless transition initiative would be unsuccessful without the in-depth education of VA staff. The agency has created training materials to help staff identify combat veterans and ensure that they receive timely access to appropriate services and benefits. VA has developed tools to assist clinicians in caring for OEF/OIF veterans; for example, in collaboration with DoD, VA developed Clinical Practice Guidelines on combat veteran health issues like post-deployment health and unexplained pain and fatigue. VA also developed several Veterans Health Initiative Independent Study Guides relevant to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cooperation and communication between DoD and VA is perhaps the most important aspect of seamless transition. According to recent testimony given by the VA Undersecretary for Benefits, the agencies have made significant progress in the development of collaborative health technologies that support seamless transition, including the successful transmission of electronic medical records between DoD and VA, and the adoption and implementation of related data standards. In addition to these improvements, the departments have made efforts to streamline the disability evaluation and rating process. Currently, servicemembers who apply for disability compensation under the Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) program undergo a medical examination while still on active duty that is adequate for VA purposes. Under the program, which is jointly sponsored by DoD and VA, servicemembers can complete an application for VA disability compensation benefits up to 180 days prior to separation. Servicemembers attend one physical examination, and VA fully develops the claim; the single medical examination meets the military’s needs for a separation physical and also fulfills VA’s requirements for processing the disability claim. This process results in less inconvenience for the servicemember and fewer gaps in the delivery of his or her well-earned benefits.

According to its 2006 Year End Report, the Office of Seamless Transition is working toward future initiatives such as integrating VA and DoD tracking systems and making statistics on OEF/OIF veterans more easily accessible. In more general terms, however, the Office of Seamless Transition strives to expand the process to all servicemembers transitioning from military to civilian life. Regardless of its breadth, the seamless transition initiative is an important one for many of our nation’s veterans, and it is something of which all Maryland attorneys should be aware. For more information about seamless transition and other important veterans programs, please visit www.va.gov.

Betty Joan Thurber is a Management Analyst with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Veterans Affairs or the United States of America.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: May  2007