By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
President Bush sent legislation to Congress yesterday to revamp the health-care and disability system for U.S troops wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan by eliminating duplicative bureaucracy and providing more assistance to families dealing with the long-term effects of their injuries.
The proposals are part of a broader effort by the Bush administration to overhaul how wounded service members are treated once they come home from war, a project launched after revelations eight months ago of shoddy conditions and mind-numbing red tape at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Critics have complained that the changes have not come fast enough. Bush said the need for action "is urgent."
"Our system for managing this care has fallen behind," the president said during an appearance in the Rose Garden alongside senior advisers and members of a commission he appointed to develop a plan to fix the problems. "It's an old system; it's an antiquated system; it's an outdated system that needs to be changed." He added: "By taking these steps, we'll honor a shared commitment to care for those who defend our freedom."
Among those on hand was Ryan Groves, a Marine critically injured in Iraq who was featured in a series of articles by The Washington Post on Walter Reed. Groves lost his left leg and was badly wounded in the right leg in Iraq in 2004, but today he is studying law. He arrived at the White House on a Segway. "He's an amazing fellow," Bush said. "He's an inspiration for all Americans. And we need to build a system of care that is worthy of the sacrifice that he and others have made."
The president's announcement came several weeks after the release of a preliminary Government Accountability Office report that said the promises to repair the system have been hobbled by staff shortages and delays in streamlining the process. Lawmakers from both parties have complained that they still hear horror stories and have urged more expeditious action.
The legislation unveiled by Bush was designed to address some of those concerns and adopted recommendations from the July report of the President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors, co-chaired by former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and former Clinton administration health and human services secretary Donna E. Shalala.
The White House said that it has already moved to implement the Dole-Shalala recommendations that are within the power of the executive branch, but that congressional approval is needed for the most significant proposals.
The bulk of the legislation is aimed at eliminating the parallel disability evaluation systems run by the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which force wounded troops to endure two sets of examinations, two sets of paperwork and two appeals processes.
Under the proposed system, the Defense Department would decide only whether service members are fit for duty. Those who are not would receive a lifetime annuity payment based on rank and length of service, and would then transfer to VA. VA would evaluate the extent of the disability and decide on a payment based not only on loss of earnings but also on the loss of qualify of life. Transition payments would be available.
The new system would apply to all newly injured soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Others who were injured since October 2001 would have the option of transferring into the new system or continuing with their current course. The new system would not apply to veterans of past wars, such as the Persian Gulf War, the Vietnam War, the Korean War or World War II.
In addition, the legislation would let the parents or spouses of seriously wounded combat veterans take as much as six months of unpaid leave to help with care without fear of losing their jobs. Respite care and the use of home attendants would be expanded. And all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans would be allowed to receive care for post-traumatic stress disorder without having to demonstrate its connection to their service.
Dole and Shalala, who wrote an op-ed article in yesterday's Post urging action and decrying efforts to delay the changes by making them apply to all veterans instead of just to those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, praised Bush for his commitment. "Let me compliment your administration on the implementation of 90 percent of our recommendations," Shalala told Bush during the event.