A program to streamline the military disability-evaluation process is struggling under a rapidly expanding caseload of ill and injured service members.

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A program to streamline the military disability-evaluation process is struggling under an expanding caseload of ill and injured service members, according to statistics released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office.

The new system, launched in 2008, seeks to move active-duty service members through a joint military and Department of Veterans Affairs evaluation within 295 days. But each year, the average processing time has increased, and reached an average of 394 days for active-duty soldiers last year. A big challenge has been a surge in service members entering the new disability system, which climbed from 4,448 in fiscal year 2008 to more than 18,600 in 2011, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). “Enrollments are up significantly, doubling each year,” said Daniel Bertoni, a GAO investigator in testimony Wednesday to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “We have multitudes coming into this program, very rapidly.”

Some injured and ill soldiers who get stuck in a lengthy transition from active-duty to veteran status are prone to abusing alcohol, drugs and bouts of depression, and that has helped spur efforts to find ways to speed up the process.

“We owe it to these men and women to get it right,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate committee.

The Integrated Disability Evaluation System was set up in the aftermath of investigations at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and elsewhere that found service members foundering in a tangled disability system.

Under the old system, service members have had to work through both a military disability-rating system, and then another system developed by the VA.

The new system seeks to create a “seamless transition,” in which the VA and the military are both involved in evaluating service members as they exit the military. Yet it is still a work in progress. And, at Lewis-McChord, Murray noted that six service members have died from suicide, auto accidents or drug overdoses before finishing the evaluation process.

Bertoni said that in recent months, there is evidence that the program is getting closer to meeting the goals.

John Gingrich, VA chief of staff, said he thinks the program has turned the corner, and will make more progress in the months ahead.

Bertoni testified that the program has had a hard time expanding staffing to match the caseload and resolving diagnostic differences between Department of Defense doctors and VA examiners.

A separate investigation by committee staff members reviewed 121 claims from 23 sites around the country, and found that more than a third of those claims included inconsistencies between VA and Department of Defense evaluations.

Investigators found some of “the most frequent and severe inconsistencies” at Madigan Army Medical Center, where forensic psychiatric evaluations often were at odds with VA evaluations.

Earlier this year, Madigan’s forensic psychiatrist team was removed from the evaluation process, and new evaluations have been extended to 419 people. Of 196 revaluations completed, 108 have had the PTSD diagnoses reinstated, according to Dr. Jo Ann Rooney, the Defense Department’s Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

“What we learned from that was clearly that the process that was put into place at that time did not function as originally designed,”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com