WASHINGTON - 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 its first public meeting, the nine-member panel heard from veterans, spouses and advocacy groups who decried what they said was a failed system. The commission 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 said the commission planned to build upon the work of at least nine congressional committees and other government panels that are investigating veterans' health care problems. Those inquiries followed disclosures in February of squalid conditions and poor outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Their reviews in recent weeks have pointed to inadequacies with the treatment of brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as outpatient care.
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."
Among the areas the report will address: fostering cooperation between the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which do not have systems in place to share inpatient records electronically; providing institutional support to families who bear burdens of caregiving; and reforming a disability benefits system that critics say shortchanges injured soldiers.
"Our timeline for action is very short," Shalala said. As a result, she said commissioners may not be able to visit every military hospital and VA clinic to examine conditions.
Shalala encouraged injured troops and veterans to express their concerns to the commission through their Web site - www.pccww.gov
During the hearing, the commission heard stories of confusion and frustration as veterans navigated the Pentagon and VA's vast health care network. Veterans complained of bureaucratic doublespeak when they sought help and said the problems extended beyond Walter Reed.
Veterans must take on "mammoth bureaucracies," said Bobby Muller, president of Veterans for America. He said the government has been slow to respond to brain injuries and other medical problems from the Iraq war.
Three commissioners who experienced problems after they or their spouses were injured in Iraq said their final report would address the maddening red tape.
Tammy Edwards spoke of recommending ways to alleviate burdens on families. In 2005, her husband, an Army staff sergeant, was burned severely in Iraq when a 500-pound bomb exploded under his vehicle.
Spouses often must drop everything to provide care, and parents and grandparents frequently change their way of life too because of the burdens of providing for injured service members from Iraq who are much younger compared to past wars, 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."
The commission also heard from two former Army secretaries, John O. "Jack" Marsh and Togo D. West, who headed an independent review ordered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Its report last week found money problems and Pentagon neglect were to blame.
A different panel also 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 will not have to pay disability benefits.
West faulted a system that ignored problems for so long. He noted that many of his group's recommendations - which include a quick infusion of funds, an overhaul of the disability evaluation system and creation of a national "center of excellence" for brain injury cases - had been offered by other commissions and congressional panels in the past 10 years.
"We know what to do as a society, as two Cabinet departments, to fix that system," he said. "We must summon the will and persistence to see that through. We can do better."
West and Marsh suggested that responsibility may lie with Bush and Congress. Dole did not seem to disagree, suggesting the commission may incorporate many of the previous recommendations.
"Maybe if we put a different set of names in front of it, things will happen," Dole said.
In the coming weeks, the commission plans more than a dozen hearings and site visits to military and VA facilities around the country, including Los Angeles and San Antonio. The commission's next hearing will be April 23 in Washington, with a visit to Walter Reed the following day.