[quote]The military medical system must be redirected to meet the needs of the large numbers of seriously wounded soldiers now returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than mainly serving the aging veterans of earlier conflicts, the leaders of a new presidential panel said today.
“I’m concerned there may be flaws in the system,” President Bush said as he formally appointed Bob Dole and Donna Shalala today to head the bipartisan nine-member commission. “I’m concerned that soldiers and their families are not getting the treatment they deserve,” Mr. Bush added. “Any report of medical neglect will be taken seriously by this administration. I’m confident that Congress and we will address problems quickly.”
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said the budget for veterans’ health care has not grown enough to cope with the number of service members being wounded in combat, or to handle their disability claims. Senator Daniel Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii, said the budget pinch meant that veterans’ affairs offices were short-staffed, leading to delays in processing new claims.
As a result, he said, federal agencies were “two months short of the goal” of processing claims within 120 days.
Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, said that there were too few doctors, nurses and other health workers in the system to handle the influx of war wounded, “and we are burning them out.” He, too, called for more funds for treating and assisting veterans.
Mr. Dole, a former Republican senator and presidential candidate, was himself grievously wounded in World War II. Ms. Shalala is a former secretary of Health and Humans Services. The commission is being set up to investigate how wounded soldiers are treated and helped with the transition back to civil society.
“If we come up with good suggestions, we could change the system over the next 30 years,” Mr. Dole said.
He said that while American military and veterans’ hospitals now generally provide high quality inpatient treatment, they do not do as well with outpatient and transitional care. “It’s when we move them out that’s the problem,” he said.
The commission was formed in the wake of revelations about unsanitary living conditions, treatment lapses and bureaucratic failings at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, one of the nation’s premier military hospitals. Soldiers who were treated there have told of being discharged only a few days after suffering serious wounds, and of having to fight their way through a confusing and unresponsive bureaucracy to get the outpatient treatment they needed.
Meanwhile, members of the Senate Veterans Affairs committee complained at a hearing today that veterans have to wait too long before their disability claims are judged and paid.
Senator Akaka, said there was a “public perception that the Veterans Administration is failing to meet the needs of veterans.”
The ranking Republican on the committee. Senator Larry E. Craig of Idaho, added, “It may be time to make fundamental changes to the system.”
Senator John D. Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, read a letter from a veteran who was told he would have to wait six to eight months before he could get any payments for his disability. The veteran wrote that he might be forced to sleep in his truck, until it is repossessed for failure to make payments on it.
Speaking after her appointment as co-chairwoman of the presidential panel, Ms. Shalala said part of the commission’s task would be to recognize that health care has changed, and that a transition back to normal life after acute care needs more attention.
Mr. Dole noted that during World War II, “they treated you and sent you home.”
But health care officials now know that “mental symptoms may not manifest until months” after a soldier returns home, Senator Craig said at the hearing.
The combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to a sharp increase in the number of new disability claims being filed by veterans — up 38 percent since 2000, according to Daniel L. Cooper, the undersecretary of Veterans Affairs.
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Anyone have a problem with Bob Dole leading this panel?