By HOPE YEN
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush said Wednesday his hand-picked investigative panel has interesting suggestions on improving health care for those wounded in battle, but the White House said not to expect action right away.
Just after the Senate on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue passed sweeping legislation to expand brain screenings, reduce red tape and boost military pay, Bush thanked former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, and other panel members as they presented their draft recommendations to him in the Oval Office.
The panel was to hold a hearing later and approve the final report later in the day.
"We owe our wounded soldiers the very best care, and the very best benefits, and the very easiest to understand system," Bush said. "And so they took a very interesting approach. They took the perspective from the patient, as the patient had to work his way through the hospitals and bureaucracies. And they've come up with some very interesting and important suggestions."
Bush created the panel March 6 to investigate problems in the treatment of wounded veterans following disclosures of roach-infested conditions and shoddy outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, one of the nation's premier facilities for treating those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Veterans advocates say the Pentagon and VA had years of warnings about growing problems amid a burgeoning war, but the final report will not seek to assign blame.
The White House event followed the Senate's vote by unanimous consent on legislation that seeks to end inconsistencies in disability pay by providing for a special review of cases in which service members received low ratings of their level of disability. The aim is to determine if they were shortchanged.
The bill also would boost severance pay and provide $50 million for improved diagnosis of veterans with traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder. The House was considering similar measures.
"Today, the Senate took action to provide real solutions," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "From inexcusably long waits for basic care and claims, to squalid living conditions, to daunting mazes of paperwork, our heroes deserve better than what they have received from this administration. As the president considers the results of a study he commissioned nearly five months ago to examine the extent of problems, we are acting to fix them."
Bush also praised Bob Woodruff of ABC News, who was nearly killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq last year. "We're glad you're with us, Bob," Bush said. "Congratulations on the will to recover." When Woodruff asked Bush whether the government was moving fast enough to help families, the president declined to answer.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said that Bush would not be acting immediately on any of the recommendations. Rather, he said that the panel's ideas would likely be integrated with other ongoing efforts to improve health care and overall treatment of returning soldiers.
In interviews in advance of Wednesday's report presentation, commissioners said the study was focused on a handful of pragmatic proposals, such as boosting benefits for family members so they have more flexibility to travel or take time off work to care for injured loved ones.
Simplifying the unwieldy disability ratings system to eliminate duplicative requirements by the VA and Pentagon is also a goal, as is urging a change in the government formula for awarding disability pay to motivate recovering veterans to find jobs.
"We're not seeing problems with the actual medical care provided," said commissioner Gail Wilensky, an economist and senior fellow at Project HOPE, an international health education foundation. "The problems we are seeing are in administrative handoffs that occur as somebody comes back to the United States."
The commission is expected to offer a more limited response to one of the biggest problems: providing health care that allows injured troops to move from facility to facility without lost paperwork and delays, regardless of whether they are using a Pentagon or VA-run facility.
Presidential panels have long urged the Pentagon and VA to develop a system for sharing inpatient records electronically, but the two agencies still remain months if not years away.
As a result, the commission was seeking short-term fixes that would make records available right away to medical facilities for Iraq war veterans first, possibly over the Internet, commission members said.
"We're faced with a unique challenge for a group of individuals," said Dr. C. Martin Harris, a member of the commission and the chief information officer at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, citing the expected influx of returning Iraq war veterans. "If we can focus on that idea and prioritize properly, we can make changes relatively quickly."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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