ARLINGTON, Va. – A new policy intended to help National Guard members who were activated to support COVID-19 operations is a “win for the health of the force.”
That is 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 been on sustained COVID operation orders (502(f) orders), that we asked if – instead of trying to seek out an active-component facility to conduct the separation health exams, [since] many of our locations aren’t located close to any military treatment facility – we would be granted the authority to do it,” Faris said.
After a nine-month review by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a memorandum was signed Feb. 28. The new policy enables Guard members to undergo a separation history and physical examination, or SHPE, when demobilizing from full-time National Guard duty orders under Title 32 section 502(f) after continuous active service of 180 or more days. Members have up to 90 days after coming off activation to do so.
“It was almost like delivering a baby,” said Faris, adding she made the policy her top priority when she began her current job in June.
“I took this one thing, and I put it to the top of the list, and I said we absolutely need to get after this,“ Faris said. “And to me, it was a no-brainer because what we were doing is volunteering to be able to take workload off of active duty and bring it into the state.”
The policy allows fully credentialed National Guard medical clinicians to administer the SHPEs locally, thus decreasing the administrative burden on active-duty military treatment facilities and the Department of Veterans Affairs. This will also reduce costs associated with using Department of Defense-contracted health care services.
Several exceptions are also included within the memorandum, which are intended to improve SHPE access for covered National Guard members and to preserve the opportunity to record service-related health concerns. For example, audiograms and laboratory testing may be completed as needed, according to 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 mission risk assessment, the military department concerned may authorize the replacement of the SHPE requirement with alternatives.
Faris explained that documentation is key, and Guard members should not procrastinate in addressing medical challenges.
“What I would say to Soldiers and Airmen is if there is a medical challenge going on in your life, it’s very important that you seek treatment so that we can document it, look into it, and explore it and hopefully try to resolve it,” said Faris. “By pushing it aside, these things will add up. And you may have a situation where you don’t have anything documented and you want it to be in the line of duty and because there’s no medical documentation, it’s very hard to prove that it was.”
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 of range of motion, and more.
With each case, a Defense Department HCP will determine whether a separation physical examination is in the best interest of the National Guard member. They will consider factors such as known or reasonably expected requirements for the member to produce medical documentation to support a line-of-duty inquiry or transition to a medical hold status. To waive the physical examination, the member must concur with the HCP’s determinations.
“Normal day-to-day things can happen in a person’s life, [and] this is a way for us to be able to document it and for it to live in their medical record,” said Faris. “If something else happens along the way, then we have a touchpoint of any medical challenge that we have. Then, we can collectively do a really good medical assessment on our Airman or Soldier.”
Ultimately, she added, the new policy helps ensure that Guard members are ready for future challenges.
“It’s just a way to be able to promote the readiness of the force,” she said. “It’s also a way to justify and signify that the part-time force, the Reserve component – in our case the National Guard – has been doing a heavy lift for our nation.”
The current memorandum will stay in effect until Feb. 28, 2023. Faris said she hopes it will be evaluated after that and, if the Guard can demonstrate proficiency, be considered by OSD Health Affairs for permanent implementation.