In October, I attended one of the two major aeromedical meetings that I go to each year. This meeting brought together the FAA physician staff, aviation medical examiners, and other aeromedical specialists for three days of scientific meetings. This meeting, held in Reno, Nevada, again was chock full of great information about recent and upcoming policy changes, medication approvals, and FAA certification performance metrics. In my role at AOPA, I’m of course interested in all those things, but the performance metric has been of particular interest since about March 28 of last year, when the FAA’s Document Imaging and Workflow System (DIWS)-Web (a key part of the computerized medical records processing system) came crashing down following the migration of that system from a server-based to a Web-based application.
What happened after that was a disaster for the FAA as the backlog skyrocketed so much that the average processing time for the Aerospace Medical Certification Division climbed to more than 120 days. Needless to say, 2013 and the first quarter of 2014 was a trying time for all of us—pilots, AMEs, advocacy groups, and the FAA. It truly was a bureaucratic nightmare.
Fortunately, the second half of 2014 saw significant improvement in the FAA scorecard, and we are now seeing some special issuance cases turning around in less than 30 days! I’m not going to dance on my desk just yet, but life is better in that respect, for now.
I want to follow up to my comments in a previous column about choosing an AME. And yes, there is a connection to all this. One of the noteworthy comments I heard at the meeting is that of the 3,200 or so AMEs currently designated by the FAA, about 25 percent of them are still not familiar with the CACI (conditions AMEs can issue) program that the FAA implemented over a year ago. This program is part of the evolutionary process of regulatory medical certification that identified some medical conditions that previously required special issuance but that have now been “downgraded” to routine office issuances. This procedure is a win/win for pilots and for the FAA, but it is disconcerting that this high a number of AMEs still don’t know what it is.
Another fact that was disturbing to me is that of the 400,000 applications for medical certificates processed by the FAA, 17,800 of them were deferred for FAA review by AMEs. That’s a lot of pilots who were not issued a medical certificate at the time of the exam. Now, in all fairness to the majority of AMEs who are doing good work out there, we weren’t told how many of those deferrals were “appropriate,” but it is probably fair to say that a significant percentage of those deferrals could have been handled with a phone call from the AME to the FAA, and the certificate could have been issued to the airman at that time.
The FAA is really trying to make the sometimes-onerous process of getting a medical certificate as efficient as possible, but when the AME doesn’t make the effort to work with the FAA to get the pilot certificated in the office, the whole process gets bogged down. The FAA’s overall inefficiency in timely processing of medical certificate applications is perhaps the main catalyst that led to the AOPA/Experimental Aircraft Association exemption request in March 2013 that would provide relief from the certification bureaucracy for many pilots who fly recreationally, and would also give backlog relief for the FAA. We are continuing to put pressure on the FAA, and we are expecting to see the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) sometime in early 2015.
In the meantime, though, we pilots still need to be educated about the process, and familiar with our AMEs to keep them accountable in order to avoid the backlog hell that can occur if you run aground with the FAA.
I’ll close with one tip that might save you some time if you have to provide any supplemental medical information to the FAA. We suggest you have than information with you when you show up for the physical exam with your AME. That way, the AME can at least review what you have, and can maybe get the FAA to OK an office issuance based on the favorable reports.
However, we also encourage members not to rely on the AME to send those records on to the FAA. Instead, do that yourself. That way, you know what records are going in, the day they were mailed, and the method used to get them to the FAA. (We suggest overnighting them FedEx, UPS, or USPS. That can get them into the review cycle several days sooner than first class or certified mail.)