- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 30, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A presidential panel said yesterday it was compiling a first-of-its-kind national survey to determine scientifically the extent of health care problems for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Speaking at its last public hearing before considering final recommendations, the nine-member commission said its final report could shed light on a long point of dispute in the veterans care debate: Whether highly publicized horror stories of lost paperwork, delays in disability benefits and other problems are more isolated or significantly widespread.

“With this survey, we should be able to say some things in a more systematic way,” said former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala in an interview. “One thing that will make our report truly different is that it will be evidence-based, based on the current science and present-day practice.”

Former Sen. Bob Dole, Kansas Republican, who co-chairs the panel with Miss Shalala, said he wasn’t ready to put the moral weight of a presidential commission behind findings and recommendations until he saw some actual numbers.

“We don’t want a bunch of Band-Aids that further complicate the system and create more problems,” Mr. Dole said. “Observations sometimes don’t translate to reality.”

Their comments came as the commission began honing in on a set of findings and recommendations for their final report on improving care to President Bush.

The panel hopes to issue the report by mid-July.

Mr. Bush created the commission March 6 to devise recommendations following reports of shoddy outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The commission’s survey, conducted by telephone over the last two months, queried 1,730 injured service members on their experience in getting care, family support, going through the disability ratings system, and what they were doing now.

From their three months of investigation and site visits to medical facilities, it has extensive anecdotes of short-staffing and overwhelmed facilities. Commission staff are now crunching numbers regarding the final statistical outcome, Miss Shalala said.

Past reports as long as 10 years ago have long cited problems of poor Pentagon and Veterans Administration coordination, but may have been ignored or lost in the shuffle partly due to length and their complexity, she said.

In particular, many of the commissioners expressed a desire to strengthen or add provisions that would ensure that families could have free access to private medical care if no adequate government facility is available in their cities.

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