October 17, 2007 in Nation/World

Bush proposes revamping care for wounded troops

Peter Baker Washington Post
Associated Press photo

President Bush stands with former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole in the Rose Garden of the White House on Tuesday. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – President Bush sent legislation to Congress Tuesday 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 seven 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 “It’s an old system, it’s an antiquated system, it’s an outdated system that needs to be changed.”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.”

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 Bob Dole, R-Kansas, and former Clinton administration Health and Human Services Secretary Donna 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 the VA. The 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.

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.

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