Presidential Commission Urges Congress to Expand and Streamline Benefits For Wounded Veterans
by Stephen Manning
WASHINGTON- The leaders of a presidential commission that reported on poor treatment of returning wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans urged Congress on Wednesday to expand and streamline the benefit system for those with potentially life-altering injuries.
Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration, outlined changes that would require action by Congress, including payments for wounded troops to help them transition back into civilian life, compensation for loss in earnings their injuries might cause, and coverage that for the first time takes into account changes in quality of life.
Shalala said the current system of disability payments, overseen by the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs, is outdated and mired in bureaucratic problems that confuse veterans and does not compensate for how an injury related to combat will affect their daily lives.
"We need to take into account an injury's impact on an individual's total quality of life," Shalala told the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs…
The proposals, among 34 laid out by the Dole-Shalala panel earlier this year, would make changes such as a simpler process for evaluating the injuries of troops wounded in combat-related service and providing a lifetime annuity for those who can no longer serve based on rank and years of service. For example, there would be a single medical exam to evaluate injuries – currently the military and VA do separate exams.
Wounded service members and their families would receive lifetime health care coverage and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder would be eligible for lifetime treatment. Families of those injured could take up to 12 months off from their jobs to help with care.
The proposals are similar to legislation President Bush sent to Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Shalala said Bush's recommendations would cost more and add to the panel's proposals.
The Dole-Shalala panel was one of several commissioned following reports of poor conditions for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and deep problems in the military and VA disability systems.
Terry Scott, chairman of the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission, an independent panel appointed by Congress and the president, said any overhaul of the disability evaluation and payment system could take up to five years to complete.
"A system as complex as the schedule of disability is going to take a significant amount to time to change or redo," Scott said.
The prospect of a long wait frustrated some members of the Senate committee.
"We don't have any choice, we have to do it and we have to do it quick," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
The Dole-Shalala panel has not given a cost estimate for the changes in benefits, and Dole said cost was not a factor in their recommendations. Transition payments for service members leaving duty due to injuries and compensation for changes in quality of life caused by an injury would be new benefits.
"Maybe you won't be able to dance, maybe you won't be able to play the piano. Things you can't do that really affect your quality of life," said Dole, who himself suffered serious wounds while serving in Italy during World War II.
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