Military Health Care Panel Pushes for Overhaul of System
A presidential task force headed by Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson on Tuesday said that troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should have an improved disability claims system and get more screenings for brain injuries, the AP/Baltimore Sun reports (AP/Baltimore Sun, 4/25).
President Bush last month requested that Nicholson lead a task force of seven Cabinet members that will "focus and respond to immediate needs" of veterans and troops returning home from war. The commission was appointed in response to a two-part series in the Washington Post that profiled conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and examined the process by which injured soldiers seek disability compensation (California Healthline, 3/7).
The commission called for a joint electronic case-management system to be operated by the Department of Defense and the VA through which officials would be able to share files and track patients. The commission also called for the formation of a joint disability claims process in order to speed delivery of benefits and reduce discrepancies in the system.
Case managers should be hired to help guide troops and their families through the disability claims process, and all returning veterans should be scanned for mild to moderate brain injury, which sometimes can emerge months after completing service, Nicholson said. Nicholson requested additional funds to hire more staff to process benefit claims within 125 days, compared with the current average of 177 days.
In addition, the commission recommended that action be taken to expedite housing claims and other services for returning service members and that eligibility for small business loans be expanded for returning veterans. The Labor Department should work with injured veterans to aid their transition into civilian life, according to the commission (AP/Baltimore Sun, 4/25).
In total, the panel recommended 25 ways to improve veterans' care.
Nicholson said, "We are going to accelerate the treatment of different categories of people who are coming back from the war." He said, "Now we will screen any patient who comes in to see if they have a form of brain injury," adding that such injuries are common because of "percussive blasts that are so frequent" in Iraq.
Nicholson added that he wants to simplify the process of caring for returning veterans by "cutting through red tape that has been in the way" (Talbott, CongressDaily, 4/25).
Lawmakers "welcomed the report yesterday but noted that many of the recommendations -- such as improving cooperation among agencies -- weren't particularly new," the AP/Sun reports.
Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said, "Pronouncements that imply that reports equate to progress are premature. When we see federal agencies -- principally the Pentagon and VA -- working hand in glove for the benefit of veterans, then we can talk about real progress."
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said, "While I am glad that Secretary Nicholson is finally talking about a plan for moving forward to help our veterans, neither his findings nor his recommendations are news to Congress. As we enter the fifth year of this war, it is crystal clear that the administration has never adequately planned for wounded warriors coming home" (AP/Baltimore Sun, 4/25).
Bush in a statement said that he has asked Nicholson to "exchange ideas and information" with a separate presidential commission chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Donna Shalala, former HHS secretary under President Bill Clinton. He asked the commissions to collaborate in order to "efficiently advance reform efforts."
Bush said that he expects Nicholson to report within 45 days how the panel's recommendations are being implemented (Vogel, Washington Post, 4/25).