'Fundamental Changes' Urged for Veterans Health Care

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Six presidential commission recommendations would revamp how wounded vets and their families cope with recovery. by Tim Dyhouse

A nine-member presidential committee-including two veterans wounded in the Iraq War and one wounded in WWII-recommended in July that VA and the Pentagon institute radical changes in how they care for wounded veterans.

The President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors, headed by former senator Bob Dole and former Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala, issued a 29-page report July 25 with six broad suggestions for improving care.

"We don't recommend merely patching the system, as has been done in the past," the panel's report stated. "Instead, the experiences of these young men and women have highlighted the need for fundamental changes in care management and the disability system."

VFW was generally pleased with the commission's recommendations (see box at right), agreeing with five of six suggestions. But past VFW Commander-inChief Gary Kurpius said VFW doesn't support the panel's recommendation of creating two classes of disabled veterans and compensating them differently.

"The current system isn't perfect, but it does treat similar disabilities equally, without regard to whether the injury was combat-related, training-related or due to an accident back at your home station," Kurpius said. "As much as we want improvements, we don't want it at the expense of creating a dual system that compensates similar injuries or wounds differently."

Currently, if the Pentagon deems a wounded GI unfit for service, military doctors assign a rating that determines what level of benefits and compensation he or she receives. After retirement, the veteran can opt to receive benefits from VA. The panel's recommendation would eliminate that choice.

The commission further suggested that VA payments be based in part on a veteran's and his or her family's quality of life, rather than just their employability.

"This is a very important change," Dole said, "because in the past it was just based on your disability."

Kurpius also said VFW likes the idea of a single "recovery coordinator" that is at the heart of the "patient-centered" recovery philosophy the panel recommended. But he added that VFW believes VA personnel rather than the U.S. Public Health Service should staff the coordinator positions.

The commission, which President Bush created in March following reports of substandard care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., surveyed more than 1,700 troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and visited 23 federal and private treatment sites. …