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Panel Urges Changes for Injured Vets

Associated Press | July 25, 2007

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 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 handoffs 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.

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 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.


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