After years of prodding and lobbying by AOPA, both in Congress and at the agency itself, the FAA finally appears to have gotten serious about reducing the backlog of medical certificate applications that at times has exceeded 50,000. This should help pilots needing a "special issuance" because of medical issues that prevent the local aviation medical examiner (AME) from issuing a medical certificate.
FAA's Aerospace Medical Certification Division filled several critical positions that have been vacant, ordered mandatory overtime for medical review staff, and, perhaps most significantly, implemented the long-awaited Digital Imaging Workflow System (DIWS). DIWS converts paper medical files to electronic format, allowing the applications to move through the process electronically, rather than paper files having to be physically walked from one desk to the next.
"A significant part of the problem has been adequate funding for the medical certification division, and AOPA has pushed hard on Capitol Hill to make sure the money was there," said AOPA Senior Vice President of Government and Technical Affairs Andy Cebula. "But it also required a cultural change within the division to more of a customer service attitude, and we're finally beginning to see that."
For many less serious medical conditions, the new DIWS system allows medical reviews to be completed in a matter of minutes instead of hours. So far, though, the new system provides no direct benefit for pilots with more complicated medical histories. Applications for special issuance certification for cases involving coronary intervention (bypass, angioplasty, stents), heart attacks, valve replacements, pacemakers, and diabetes are still handled as hard copy, with reviewers working from paper copies, and record files being walked from one step in the process to the next.
Indirectly, though, DIWS may be helping by letting reviewers handle the uncomplicated cases, leaving more time for the others.
"Earlier this year, requests for special issuance medical certifications were taking between three and four months," said Gary Crump, AOPA's director of medical certification. "Now we're seeing them processed in about two months.
"The surest way for a pilot to reduce the wait is to make sure that the application is properly filled out and includes every supporting document the FAA needs to process it. That's where we come in," said Crump "We've got a wealth of information online. And AOPA members can call 800/USA-AOPA (800/872-2672) and ask to speak to one of our Medical Certification specialists."