In 2007, the VA and the Defense Department combined previously separate disability evaluations into the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES), a step meant to streamline the process, eliminate often conflicting assessments, and create a seamless transition for servicemembers returning to civilian life.
"Timeliness has steadily worsened since the inception of the program," Daniel Bertoni, the GAO's director for education, workforce and income security, said in testimony for ahearing Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs .
Active duty troops waited 394 days on average in fiscal year 2011, while members of the National Guard and Reserve faced waits of 420 days. In 2010, the wait times were 357 and 370 days, respectively, and in 2008, they were less than 300.
"Unfortunately, this new disability system is exhibiting some of the same failings of the broken system that it was designed to replace," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Patty Murray, (D-Wash.) "Our servicemembers should never be forced to wait nearly 400 days to get a decision that will have such an important impact on their future."
Despite its problems, the integrated system "is considered by many to be an improvement over the legacy process it replaced," Bertoni noted.
The evaluations determine medical disability ratings and compensation levels, a critical step for servicemembers leaving the military.
Only 19 percent of active duty servicemembers completed the process and received benefits within the departments' goal of 295 days, according to the GAO.
Both departments have pledged to raise that figure to 60 percent in 2012, and last month, the VA reached 62 percent, according to VA spokesman Josh Taylor.
"VA is committed to working with DoD to further streamline and improve the disability evaluation process, and achieve our combined performance goal of 295 days," said Taylor. "While VA has made clear progress in reducing processing times over the past year, there is more work to be done."
"We are committed to constant evaluation of the system and will continue to seek long-term innovative solutions focused on improving the experience of our wounded warriors," said Eileen M. Lainez, a Defense Department spokeswoman.
In his testimony, the GAO's Bertoni says the causes of the delays "are not yet fully understood."