Bush Sends Proposal to Congress To Revamp Veterans’ Health Care
President Bush on Tuesday announced a proposal to revamp the health care and disability system for wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Washington Post reports.
His proposal is based on the recommendations of a presidential commission co-chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and University of Miami President and former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala.
Bush's plan includes eliminating bureaucracy and providing more assistance to families of soldiers with long-term care needs. According to the Post, the "bulk of the legislation is aimed at eliminating the parallel disability evaluation systems" run by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
Under the proposal, DOD would decide whether servicemembers are fit for duty. Those who are deemed unfit would receive a lifetime annuity payment determined by rank and length of service. After their fitness for duty is assessed by DOD, disabled veterans then would be transferred to the VA, which would evaluate the extent of their disability and determine a payment based on loss of earnings and quality of life.
If approved by Congress, the new system would apply to all soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are newly injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Any servicemembers injured since October 2001 would have the option of remaining in the current system or transferring to the new system.
Veterans of past wars would not be eligible to participate in the new disability system. In addition, Bush's proposal would permit post-traumatic stress disorder care for soldiers without requiring them to prove the connection between the condition and their service (Baker, Washington Post, 10/17).
Also under the proposal, the VA would establish "recovery coordinators," who would serve as patient advocates to help returning veterans navigate the bureaucracy and transition back to civilian life. Severely injured servicemembers also would qualify for 40 hours of in-home assistance weekly (Gerstenzang, Los Angeles Times, 10/17). The parents or spouses of seriously wounded veterans would be eligible for up to six months of unpaid leave to help provide care (Washington Post, 10/17).
According to Karl Zinsmeister, assistant to the president for domestic policy, the current disability system costs the government about $30 billion annually to cover the three million wounded veterans, and the new system would probably "cost a little more than the old system."
According to Shalala, implementing the commission's recommendations would cost $1 billion over 10 years (Los Angeles Times, 10/17).
Congress is working to reconcile wounded veterans' legislation (HR 1538) that passed in the House and Senate. The defense authorization bill (HR 1585) also includes provisions for wounded servicemembers.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said that conferees "will examine the provisions contained in the White House proposal to see if they could be incorporated" into the conference report.
However, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chair Bob Filner (D-Calif.) said he plans to address the commission's recommendations in separate legislation (CQ Today, 10/16).
Bush said, "Our system for managing this care has fallen behind. It's an old system; it's an antiquated system; it's an outdated system that needs to be changed." He added, "By taking these steps, we'll honor a shared commitment to care for those who defend our freedom."
During Bush's announcement, Shalala said, "Let me compliment your administration on the implementation of 90% of our recommendations" (Washington Post, 10/17).
Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said although he is pleased the commission's recommendations have been implemented, two urgent issues still need to be addressed: the VA appropriations budget must be approved by Congress and Bush must pick a successor to former VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, who stepped down on Oct. 1 (Riechmann, AP/Houston Chronicle, 10/17).
"It is time to decide -- do we reform the current military and veterans' disability evaluation and compensation systems or limp along, placing Band-Aids over existing flaws?" former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and University of Miami President and former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala write in a Washington Post opinion piece. Dole and Shalala serve as co-chairs of a presidential commission charged with identifying ways to improve care and services for veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They note that it has been "more than 2 1/2 months since our commission presented its six pragmatic recommendations to improve the system of care for our injured service members and their families," and while "progress has been made, more work remains. And the clock is ticking."
Dole and Shalala write that despite the "strong bipartisan support being given to the proposals," it is "clear that our recommendations are being swept up in a decades-long battle to reform the entire disability system for all service members." They continue, "While we hope that our recommendations will help many others, our mission was to make the system work better for this new generation of veterans."
Dole and Shalala write, "Yes, our elected officials should continuously examine how to enhance care for all those who have been put in harm's way," adding, "But right now, they have actionable recommendations that can make a real difference for those who have served our country in Iraq and Afghanistan."
They conclude, "With Veterans Day only a few weeks away, we can think of no better tribute than to give our new veterans a system that truly meets their needs" (Dole/Shalala, Washington Post, 10/16).