A presidential commission urged broad changes to veterans' care Wednesday that would boost benefits for family members helping the wounded, establish an easy-to-use Web site for medical records and overhaul the way disability pay is awarded.
The nine-member panel, led by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Donna Shalala, health and human services secretary during the Clinton administration, also recommended stronger partnerships between the Pentagon and the private sector to boost treatment for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The panel called for a "patient-centered recovery plan" for each seriously injured service member, for which "a corps of well-trained, highly skilled recovery coordinators" needs to be organized. It also proposed what was described as the first major overhaul in the veterans' disability system in 50 years.
If implemented by Congress and the Bush administration, the changes could significantly improve the outlook for the 1.5-million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, including thousands who have returned with debilitating wounds or mental health problems.
"Gone are the countless calls for appointments," Shalala said.
A 29-page report was presented to President Bush just after the Senate addressed some of the issues Wednesday by passing sweeping legislation to expand brain screenings, reduce red tape and boost military pay.
Six of the 35 proposals require legislation, while the rest call for action primarily by the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs. The expected price tag for the entire package is about $500-million each year, with added costs that could push it to $1-billion in later years.
"The ball's in their court," Dole said.
The report does not seek to lay blame for shoddy outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that led to creation of the commission. Instead, it cites a need to move forward.
Among the proposals:
- Require comprehensive training programs in post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries for military leaders, VA and Pentagon personnel.
- Boost staff and money for Walter Reed Army Medical Center until it closes in coming years. Also urges the Pentagon to work with the VA to create "integrated care teams" of doctors and nurses to see injured troops through recovery.
- Restructure disability pay systems to give the VA more responsibility for awarding benefits.
- Create a "My eBenefits" Web site, developed by the VA and Pentagon, that would let service members and doctors access private medical data as the injured move from facility to facility.
- Provide better family support, including training and counseling for families of service members who require long-term care and improved family leave and insurance benefits for family members. One-third of injured Iraq war veterans reported that a family member or close friend had to relocate to care for them.