NEW YORK (AP) -Changes in the disability plan for former NFL players will help speed up the process of applying for benefits. What won't change much is the process itself, which has received much criticism from retirees over how the decisions on whether to award benefits are made.
The league and the NFL Players Association formally announced a series of adjustments to the disability plan Wednesday. Ex-players have complained that the process of applying for and receiving benefits moved too slowly, and the new procedures address that.
``These changes will substantially improve the disability process and are another step in our commitment to address the medical needs of retired players,'' said NFL executive vice president of labor relations Harold Henderson.
But the way the retirement board determines whether applicants are eligible for benefits remains virtually the same. Former Baltimore Colts defensive back Bruce Laird, one of the ex-players who has been a critic of the treatment of retirees, called the changes ``window dressing.''
A medical director will be hired to consult with the two-person initial claims committee as well as the full retirement board, which hears appeals. The medical director will act in an advisory role and his or her recommendations will not be binding, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. The league and union will work with consultants to hire the medical director, possibly as soon as early January, Aiello said.
Laird expressed the same concern that he and others have raised about the selection of doctors who examine applicants for the retirement board. They question whether the physicians are chosen because they're more likely to reject applicants and say they deserve a voice in determining which doctors are used.
The league and union expect that the addition of the medical director will result in fewer applicants being rejected by the initial claims committee, which would mean that more cases are decided quickly.
Other announced changes are also aimed at streamlining the process. A claims specialist will be provided to help ex-players navigate the paperwork needed to apply. Physician panels will be established in major cities to reduce the need for applicants to travel to be examined by a specialist. The retirement board will decide appeals via e-mail ballots instead of waiting for the next scheduled meeting.
The changes also call for the status of retirees who are awarded benefits for total and permanent disability to be reviewed less frequently.
In addition to the adjustments to the disability plan, the league and union announced that they will provide retired players with a card to purchase prescription drugs at a discount.

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