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Evaluation center a collaborative effort
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Maj. Gen. Robert Abe Abrams talks with Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas on Tuesday during the open house of the Army Medical Evaluation Center.

Col. Ron Place, commander of Winn Army Community Hospital and U.S. Army Medical Department Activity Command for Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield, refuses to take credit for the concept of collocating Army Medical Evaluation Board personnel with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs assessment specialists.

“Our team developed the concept,” Place said, explaining there was a significant demand to speed up the medical-evaluation process. “Collocating makes it more convenient for the soldier and a much more streamlined process.”

Place said the process essentially begins when a wounded or injured soldier’s primary care manager determines he or she no longer meets the physical-fitness standards for active duty. In the past, the soldier received a disability rating from the Army and was medically discharged or retired — a process that took up to a year — and then the soldier would begin a new rating process through the V.A., which could take another six months to a year to complete.

Today, the V.A. conducts the disability rating while the soldier still is on active duty. Now, when the soldier is released from service, he or she can begin drawing disability compensation and other benefits as a disabled veteran.

Place said the total process is supposed to take 295 days from the decision by the physical-evaluation board to the day the soldier is discharged from the Army. A year ago, the process on Fort Stewart averaged 450 days, he said.

After doubling the size of their staff, the process still averaged 400 days, so Place said his team looked for other ways to streamline the process.

That’s when the idea developed to collocate with the V.A. However, there wasn’t a building on Fort Stewart large enough to allow for collocating, so they began looking for a site off post.

“We got the necessary people together to help make this happen,” Mayor Jim Thomas said. “Our inspections department people worked with the Corps of Engineers and MEDDAC, so they could identify and rectify any problems on the spot.”

Place commended the cooperation and assistance provided by Hinesville authorities in making the 14,000-square foot Medical Evaluation Center a reality. The new facility is in the Hinesville Square Shopping Center at 229 W. Gen. Screven Way.

“From an idea to opening, it took just a little more than eight months,” Place said. “Everybody working together made the process faster.”

He said the only downside to the new process is that a soldier may have to remain on active duty a little longer. However, when he or she is discharged, the solider already will be under the care of the V.A., which, for some soldiers, includes disability compensation.

“Those soldiers who go (to the Medical Evaluation Center) get all the help they need right there,” added Thomas, himself a disabled veteran. “They don’t have to go to Dublin or Charleston. To me, it’s the best thing that’s happened for our disabled veterans that I can think of in my lifetime, and that includes 23 years in the Marine Corps and Army and 25 years as a (Department of the Army) civilian.”

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