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Veterans health panel calls for ‘fundamental’ fix

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A bipartisan presidential commission yesterday delivered a report to President Bush on the embattled federal system that delivers heath care to wounded troops, urging a critical need for immediate "fundamental changes."

Former Sen. Bob Dole, who was wounded in World War II, and Donna Shalala, the former Health and Human Services Secretary for President Clinton, presented the nine-member commission's draft report in the Oval Office.

The report took a grim view of the problems besetting veteran care, alarmingly illustrated by reports of wounded veterans receiving insufficient treatment and living in roach-infested conditions at the District's Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

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

Mr. Bush supported the panel's findings, saying the nation owes its wounded troops "the very best care and the very best benefits and the very easiest to understand system."

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Mr. Bush will review the report carefully before taking any action.

"I don't think this is a two-page report where you just sort of rifle through it and say, 'there we go,' " he said.

Sen. John Kerry criticized the president for a lack of immediate action.

"We cannot tolerate White House foot-dragging on yet another bipartisan commission's findings," the Massachusetts Democrat said. "The White House stonewalled the advice of the 9/11 commission and the Iraq Study Group, and we're less safe because of their inaction. That pattern must not be repeated when it comes to helping America's veterans."

The commission's 29-page draft report recommends establishing a "patient-centered recovery plan" for every seriously injured service member.

Creating a "recovery coordinator" for each wounded veteran — who would act as the patient's and family's single point of contact — would ensure that "each service member receives the care specified for them in the plan when they need it, and that no one gets 'lost in the system,' " the report said.

The commission also urged the president and Congress to increase benefits for family members helping to care for the wounded, establish an easy-to-use Web site for medical records and overhaul the way disability pay is awarded.

The report was compiled after the commission members visited 23 federal and private-sector treatment facilities.

Although the Senate yesterday passed sweeping legislation to expand brain screenings, reduce red tape and boost military pay, the panel called on Congress to do more.

Among the commission's proposed recommendations was a call for lawmakers to "enable all veterans who have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq who need post-traumatic stress disorder care to receive it from the" Department of Veterans Affairs, which only recently began to add mental-health counselors and suicide-prevention services after high-profile incidents of veteran suicides.

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