Commission Says Injured Soldiers Face Unacceptable Obstacles To Medical Treatment

Saturday, April 14th 2007, 2:13 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Injured soldiers returning home for medical treatment face an unacceptable maze of paperwork and bureaucracy, leaders of a presidential commission on veterans' health care said Saturday.

At their first public hearing, members pledged to work quickly to find solutions rather than assign blame.

``This is not going to be a witch hunt,'' said former GOP Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, one of the heads of the Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors.

Dole noted that at least nine congressional committees are investigating veterans' health care problems after the disclosures in February of squalid conditions and poor outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Donna Shalala, health and human services secretary under President Clinton, said the commission planned a report by late July that would be pragmatic and ``solution-driven.''

``Our timelines for action is very short,'' she said. As a result, she said commissioners may not be able to visit every military hospital and Veterans Affairs Department clinic to examine conditions.

Shalala said the commission would set up a Web site and telephone hot line and encourage veterans to express their concerns.

The commission heard from three of its members who experienced problems after they or their spouses were injured in Iraq.

Jose Ramos, a student at George Mason University in Virginia, lost an arm during combat in 2004. He praised the medical care at Walter Reed _ once he could get an appointment.

He described having to wait four hours after a scheduled appointment to get in, as well as rescheduling follow-up visits.

``I constantly had to re-explain my symptoms and medical history. It was like starting all over again every time I had an appointment,'' Ramos said.

Navigating the VA system was just as bad, Ramos said. ``The VA system, much like the military medical outprocessing system, is a labyrinth of offices and paperwork that no one seems to want to help with.''

Tammy Edwards said the commission's final report would recommend ways to alleviate burdens on families. In 2005, her husband, a U.S. Army staff sergeant, was severely burned in Iraq when a 500-pound bomb exploded under his vehicle.

Spouses often most drop everything to provide care, and parents and grandparents frequently change their way of life because of the burdens, Edwards said.

``I have watched several marriages fall apart because the spouses did not receive the emotional support necessary to help them through such a challenging time,'' Edwards said.

When President Bush named Dole and Shalala to head the panel, he said the nation has ``a moral obligation to provide the best possible care and treatment to the men and women who served our country.''

In recent days, an independent review found that money problems and Pentagon neglect could be blamed for numerous problems found at Walter Reed, including poor outpatient care and haphazard follow-up.

A different panel has raised questions about whether injured soldiers might be shortchanged by the system used for rating their disabilities. Critics say the Pentagon has a strong incentive to assign ratings so the military won't have to pay disability benefits.