House Acts to Improve Care for Veterans

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 28, 2007; 5:34 PM

WASHINGTON -- Reacting to shabby treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the House on Wednesday created a coterie of case managers, advocates and counselors for injured troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The "Wounded Warrior Assistance Act," approved 426-0, also establishes a hotline for medical patients to report problems in their treatment and demands an end to the red tape that has frustrated disabled service members as they move from Pentagon to Veterans Affairs Department care.

The bill would affect some of the more than 25,000 U.S. service members wounded in hostile action since military operations began in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We cannot allow those who have fought our foreign enemies in the defense of freedom to come home and fight the federal bureaucracy to get the health care they need," said Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., a member of the Armed Services Committee.

The White House, in a statement, said that while those goals were commendable, the legislation is premature.

It suggested that Congress wait for a report from a presidential commission and a task force on the war-wounded created after the exposure of poor outpatient living conditions and treatment at Walter Reed. Those findings are expected by the end of July.

But lawmakers from both parties, intent to show support for troops regardless of divisions over the war in Iraq, were in no mood to wait.

More can be done later, said Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., but the legislation is "needed now to provide immediate support for our wounded warriors."

The bill requires Senate action before it goes to the president.

The White House also objected to a provision imposing a one-year moratorium on a program letting private companies compete with public agencies for military hospital work contracts. The administration said the program, criticized for contributing to substandard conditions and inadequate non-medical staffing at Walter Reed, is generating billions in savings.

Congress was making sure that, despite the problems at Walter Reed, the medical facility not be closed as part of overall base closure plans. A Senate bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now being debated, and a similar House-passed bill, both stop the closing of Walter Reed unless the defense secretary certifies there will be no disruption in patient care.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., whose support for a strong military is a cornerstone of his presidential aspirations, said he was particularly pleased with a provision that would improve personal care by limiting medical care case managers to only 17 cases at a time. He praised another requiring that each wounded service member be assigned an advocate to help with such issues as housing and transportation.

Hunter, the top Republican on Armed Services, also likes the legislation's move toward more information-sharing between the Defense Department and the VA and steps to ease the transition to veteran status, so those wounded "don't have the bureaucracy finally telling us after three or four or five months that the records have been lost."

The defense secretary would be required to provide disabled service members being separated or retired from active duty with a written plan for transition to VA programs.

Several amendments approved by the House directed that more attention be paid to the mental health of returning combatants. One, by Reps. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., requires the Pentagon to develop a plan to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress-related problems including substance abuse conditions.

The bill also:

_Requires the VA to increase the number of physicians at its hospitals.

_Requires that appropriate members of Congress be notified of the hospitalization of a combat-wounded service member.

_Assigns independent health care professionals to serve as counselors and advocates for service members being considered by medical evaluation boards.

_Improves training for health care professionals and medical care case managers on the particular conditions of recovering service members.

_Sets up a pilot program in the Army similar to the Marine Wounded Warrior Regiment program that keeps track of those still requiring medical care on an outpatient basis.


On the Net:

Read the bill, H.R. 1538, at

© 2007 The Associated Press