- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Under criticism for poor treatment of injured troops, the Pentagon announced new measures yesterday to provide more health screenings, improve its record-keeping system and simplify an unwieldy disability claims system.

Testifying before a House panel, Michael Dominguez, principal deputy under secretary of defense, and Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, the Army’s acting surgeon general, acknowledged a need for major changes in the outpatient treatment of wounded troops and veterans.

They expressed confidence in a new leadership team overseeing Walter Reed Army Medical Center after disclosures of shoddy treatment in February and urged lawmakers to be patient.

“We believe we have the right people and the right mechanisms in place to make sure that all soldiers who are in a transitional status — our warriors in transition — are managed with care and compassion, and that they and their families are receiving the care they so justly deserve,” Gen. Pollock told a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee in prepared testimony.

The initiatives were put in place after a blistering report last week by an independent review group co-chaired by former Army Secretaries John O. Marsh and Togo D. West that found money woes and Pentagon neglect were to blame for many of the problems at Walter Reed.

Concluding that Pentagon officials should have known about that problems but chose to ignore them, the panel set up by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called for a quick infusion of funds, a new “center of excellence” for brain injury cases and an overhaul of the disability claims system, which critics say shortchanges injured troops.

Yesterday, Gen. Pollock and Mr. Dominguez said they had begun implementing changes even as they awaited the findings of several investigations under way by presidential commissions, task forces and congressional committees.

Gen. Pollock also said the Army was taking steps to accelerate follow-up medical appointments as a result of its probe of 11 other military hospitals across the country to determine whether problems existed. That recently completed review, which has not been released, found “outstanding rehabilitative work being done given available resources” but urged efforts to reduce bureaucracy, Gen. Pollock said.

Meanwhile, the Army also has begun investigating complaints involving medical care made to its new toll-free number set up to identify problems. Last week, officials also trained 23 troops to help guide service members through the disability claims system.

“There is ample evidence that warriors are receiving quality health care and are satisfied with efforts,” Gen. Pollock said.

During the hearing, Mr. Marsh and Mr. West urged quick action on many of the independent review group’s recommendations.

Noting that many of the outpatient problems emerged because of poor government planning for the influx of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, they said scores of troops and veterans were now struggling with unacceptable delays and red tape every day.

“It’s creating enormous problems,” Mr. Marsh said.

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