Panel details fixes for care of wounded warriors

A presidential commission charged with creating a plan to improve services for wounded service members has proposed expanding disability benefits and making the health care system easier to navigate.

The President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors, led by co-chairs former Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and Donna Shalala, former Health and Human Services secretary in the Clinton administration, made six recommendations. The problem most resistant to change has been modernizing the disability claims process.

“Our six recommendations do not require massive new programs or a flurry of new legislation,” Shalala told a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Oct. 17.

The commission suggested 34 steps to implement the recommendations. Six of those require legislation, including actions to modernize the disability process, revamp payments and provide incentives for completing education, she said.

The Veterans Affairs and Defense departments are implementing the recommendations that are administrative in nature. President Bush created the commission after reports earlier this year about bureaucratic and administrative roadblocks to proper care of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The recommendations are aimed at service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

VA and DOD should simplify the disability claims process, Shalala said. Each department assesses the claims for different reasons, and over the years, the process has gotten more convoluted, she said.

“By simplifying and modernizing the DOD and VA disability systems, Congress will make the systems less confusing, eliminate payment inequalities, and provide a foundation with appropriate incentives for injured veterans to return to productive life,” Shalala said.

DOD would be responsible for the physical exam for fitness to serve, but VA would determine the disability rating, she said.

VA also would revise the categories of transition payments to allow injured veterans to choose either to receive basic pay for three months for expenses during rehabilitation or an education or training program with a payment for up to six years. At the end of either of those processes, the individual would receive a “quality of life” payment based on the specific injuries and an additional payment to make up for earnings loss.

The reforms would apply initially to soldiers applying for disability claims from battle wounds since 2001.

“This will be a significant increase in payments,” Dole said. And it should be established in six months, he added.

Among the other recommendations are:

The designation of recovery coordinators to help wounded service members navigate through rehabilitation, case workers, medical appointments, referrals and paperwork;
A Web portal that would provide tailored information to each wounded service member and veteran;
A scorecard for documenting the progress of information sharing between DOD and VA;
Lifetime services for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Some of the changes called for in the commission are reflected in the Wounded Warrior legislation, which is being reconciled between House and Senate conferees as part of the 2008 National Defense Authorization bill, said Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. He acknowledged that DOD and VA had begun correcting the problems uncovered in the investigation of Walter Reed.

“However late DOD and VA may have been in recognizing the significant problems of adapting their departments to the stresses of the current conflicts, I am satisfied that real work is now underway,” Akaka said..

President Bush said Oct. 16 he strongly supports the commission's recommendations.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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