- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009

President Barack Obama on Thursday announced sweeping improvements on health care for military veterans — including a “21st century Veterans Administration.”

Among the the biggest improvements will be an electronic database that will transfer the medical records of military personnel from the Defense Department to the Veterans Administration “from the time they enlist until they are laid to rest,” Mr. Obama said to the applause roughly 120 people who attended the White House event, including patients from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Mr. Obama said the budget he has submitted to Congress includes $25 billion more in the next five years for veterans care and that the plan has bipartisan support in the House and Senate. He also said the funding increase was the biggest in the past three decades and that the additional help will go to those “who gave up so much but signed up to give more.”

Mr. Obama, flanked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, began by saying the military men and women he met during his visit last week to Iraq inspired him “all over again.”

He mention two soldiers whom he met in Baghdad — Specialist Jake Altman and Sergeant Nathan Dewitt — both severely injured but returned to battle.

“Today, they’re both back alongside their fellow soldiers in their old units,” Mr. Obama said.

The president also singled out audience member Tammy Duckworth, his nominee for assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs, who lost both legs when a rocket struck the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting in Iraq.

Mr. Obama also said his reform plan will reduce mistakes in the handling of health-care paperwork for veterans and give all VA sites access to the new database, which will be created with “strict and rigorous” privacy standards.

Mr. Shinseki testified on Capitol Hill in January that he was working to reduce a six-month delay in paying veterans’ disability claims and that a paperless system would not be in place before 2012.

Joe Violante, the national legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans, who was in the audience, said Mr. Obama also reiterated a promise to get the additional money for veterans through advanced appropriations so officials could plan better.

“I’m really excited to see him keep the promise,” said Mr. Violante, a retired Marine. “I think he is really paying attention to what the needs are.”

Mr. Obama said his budget proposal will allow 500,000 more veterans access to government health care and provide expanded mental-health services.

“The nightmares of war don’t end when our loved ones return home,” he said.

Mr. Obama said the expanded care will include more screenings and treatments in rural areas and in mobile health-care facilities.

The program also will provide more funding for the detection and treatment of traumatic brain injuries and the care for the hundreds of thousands of homeless veterans.

“We all share the shame of 154,000 veterans going homeless on any given night,” the president said. “And we will not rest until we reach a day when not one single veteran falls into homelessness.”