Panel Recommends Boosts to Vet Care

WASHINGTON - After three months of investigation, a presidential panel on troop care is promising some answers to a government problem: how to cut through the red tape facing thousands of injured Iraq war veterans.

The nine-member commission chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala planned to submit draft recommendations Wednesday to President Bush. It was to hold a hearing later in the day to formally approve the final report.

Bush created the panel March 6 to investigate problems in the treatment of wounded veterans following disclosures of roach-infested conditions and shoddy outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, one of the nation’s premier facilities for treating those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans advocates say the Pentagon and VA had years of warnings about growing problems amid a burgeoning war, but the final report Wednesday will not seek to assign blame.

In interviews, commissioners said the report will focus on a handful of pragmatic proposals, such as boosting benefits for family members so they have more flexibility to travel or take time off work to care for injured loved ones.

Simplifying the unwieldy disability ratings system to eliminate duplicative requirements by the VA and Pentagon is also a goal, as is urging a change in the government formula for awarding disability pay to motivate recovering veterans to find jobs.

“We’re not seeing problems with the actual medical care provided,” said commissioner Gail Wilensky, an economist and senior fellow at Project HOPE, an international health education foundation. “The problems we are seeing are in administrative hand-offs that occur as somebody comes back to the United States.”

The commission is expected to offer a more limited response to one of the biggest problems: providing health care that allows injured troops to move from facility to facility without lost paperwork and delays, regardless of whether they are using a Pentagon or VA-run facility.

Presidential panels have long urged the Pentagon and VA to develop a system for sharing inpatient records electronically, but the two agencies still remain months if not years away.

‘We’re faced with a unique challenge’
As a result, the commission was seeking short-term fixes that would make records available right away to medical facilities for Iraq war veterans first, possibly over the Internet, commission members said.

“We’re faced with a unique challenge for a group of individuals,” said Dr. C. Martin Harris, a member of the commission and the chief information officer at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, citing the expected influx of returning Iraq war veterans. “If we can focus on that idea and prioritize properly, we can make changes relatively quickly.”

The final report comes amid intense political and public scrutiny of the VA and Pentagon. Since the disclosures in February of problems at Walter Reed and elsewhere, Congress has been moving forward with its own set of proposals to improve family benefits and disability pay.

This month, a group of injured Iraq war veterans sued VA Secretary Jim Nicholson over delays in mental health treatment and disability pay, and Nicholson announced that he would step down by Oct. 1 to return to the private sector.

In recent months, the commission has been compiling a first-of-its-kind national survey to determine scientifically the extent of health care problems for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The survey, conducted by telephone over the last two months, queried more than 1,000 injured service members on their experiences getting care, family support and going through their disability ratings. Some preliminary findings were to be released Wednesday, with a full report expected later.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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