Presidential Panel Exhorts House To Pass Vet Care Bill

Wednesday, September 19th 2007, 1:55 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Leaders of a presidential commission appealed on Wednesday for quick passage of legislation that would provide lifetime treatment to Iraq war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said they did not want fights between Congress and the Bush administration over Iraq to overshadow the immediate needs of thousands of veterans with physical and mental injuries.

``The problems facing our injured service men and women have not gone away,'' said Shalala, a Democrat who served in the Clinton administration. ``I implore you not to forget about those who have already sacrificed so much _ our injured men and women.''

``They need to be front and center in congressional debate and within the administration,'' she told the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.

A July report by the nine-member commission recommended changes that would increase benefits for family members caring for the wounded, create a Web site for medical records and revamp the way disability pay is awarded.

Most of the recommendations require action by the White House, Pentagon or the Veterans Affairs Department. Others leave it to Congress to make changes to raise some disability benefits, improve PTSD care and strengthen work-leave and insurance benefits for family members.

Senators passed a bill in July; it awaits action in the House, which is considering adding other commission proposals.

Dole and Shalala said the White House was preparing proposals that could go beyond what the commission recommended by offering lifetime pharmacy benefits for some injured veterans.

The commission is also seeking legislation that would allow the department to provide lifetime PTSD treatment for any Iraq veteran who needs it.

The commissioners cited the Army's prolonged and repeated deployments for 500,000 service members, which increased the risk for mental health problems.

``The consequences of PTSD can be devastating,'' Shalala said. ``The longer service members are in the field, the more likely they are to experience events, which can lead to symptoms of PTSD.''

They also urged a restructuring of the veterans' disability pay systems to shift more responsibility for awarding benefits away from the Pentagon to the VA. The aim is to reduce the bureaucracy for veterans from overlapping Pentagon and VA systems.

But it is unclear how the additional duties would affect the VA, which is straining to reduce backlogs for disability benefits.

This week, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson acknowledged that current efforts would not be enough to cut down monthslong waits because of a surging number of disability claims from injured veterans due to the prolonged Iraq war.

Currently the wait is 177 days for veterans; the department hopes to reduce it to 145 to 150 days, with 1,100 new processors.