ARLINGTON, Va. — A new policy intended to help National Guard members who have been activated to support COVID-19 operations is a “victory for force health.”
That’s according to Army Maj. Gen. Jill Faris, director of the National Guard Bureau’s Office of the Joint Surgeon.
“We’ve had so many people who have received COVID supported operation orders (502(f) orders), that we asked if – instead of trying to find an active component facility to perform the health screenings of separation, [since] many of our sites are not near a military processing facility – we would be allowed to,” Faris said.
After a nine-month review by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a memorandum was signed on February 28. The new policy allows Guard members to undergo a History of Separation and Physical Examination, or SHPE, when demobilizing from full-time National Guard orders under Title 32 Section 502(f) after continuous active duty. 180 days or more. Members have up to 90 days after activation to do so.
“It was almost like delivering a baby,” Faris said, adding that she made the policy her top priority when she started her current job in June.
“I took this thing, and put it at the top of the list, and said we absolutely had to deal with it,” Faris said. “And to me, that was a no-brainer because what we were doing was volunteering so we could take the workload off active duty and bring it back into the state.”
The policy allows fully accredited National Guard medical clinicians to administer SHPEs locally, reducing the administrative burden on active duty military treatment facilities and the Department of Veterans Affairs. It will also reduce the costs associated with the use of health care services under contract with the Department of Defense.
Several exceptions are also included in the memorandum, which are intended to improve SHPE access for covered members of the National Guard and preserve the ability to record service-related health conditions. For example, audiograms and lab tests may be performed as needed, based on the professional medical judgment of a Department of Defense health care provider, or HCP.
Additionally, on a case-by-case basis and after conducting a risk assessment of the mission, the appropriate military department may authorize replacement of the SHPE requirement with alternatives.
Faris explained that documentation is essential and members of the Guard should not procrastinate to meet medical challenges.
“What I would say to soldiers and airmen is that if there is a medical problem in your life, it is very important that you seek treatment so that we can document it, examine it and explore it. and hopefully trying to fix it,” Faris said. “Put it aside, those things will add up. And you can have a situation where you haven’t documented anything and you want it to be in performance of your duties and because there is no medical documentation, it is very difficult to prove that this was the case.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, some examples of service-related injuries may include chronic back pain, breathing problems resulting from a current lung condition or lung disease, severe hearing loss, scar tissue, loss range of motion, etc.
In each case, a Department of Defense HCP will determine if a separation physical examination is in the National Guard member’s best interest. They will consider factors such as known or reasonably expected requirements for the member to produce medical documentation in support of a duty investigation or transition to medical standby status. To waive the physical examination, the member must agree with the decisions of the medical professional.
“Normal everyday things can happen in a person’s life, [and] it’s a way for us to be able to document it and bring it to life in their medical record,” Faris said. “If anything else happens along the way, then we have a point of contact of any medical challenges we have. Then we can collectively make a very good medical assessment of our airman or soldier.
Ultimately, she added, the new policy helps ensure members of the Guard are prepared for future challenges.
“It’s just a way of being able to promote force readiness,” she said. “It’s also a way of justifying and signifying that the part-time force, the reserve component – in our case, the National Guard – has done a great job for our nation.”
The current memorandum will remain in effect until February 28, 2023. Faris said she hopes it will be evaluated thereafter and, if the Guard can demonstrate competence, be considered by OSD Health Affairs for permanent implementation. .