- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2007

Rep. John Tierney, Massachusetts Democrat, has the beginnings of the Iraq-veteran health-care problem correct when he said in yesterday’s hearings that he fears “these problems go well beyond the walls of Walter Reed.” The problem of care for returning wounded GIs is systemic — it’s much bigger than Building 18 at Walter Reed. The great test for both parties now is how widely this fact is grasped, how broadly the scope of the coming inquiries is defined and whether the parties can come together to fix the systemic problems.

Heads are rolling this week and last, with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates firing Army Secretary Francis Harvey and Walter Reed chief George Weightman, a major general. These two men plus standing officials including Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, incoming acting Secretary of the Army Peter Geren and others now face a week’s gauntlet of congressional hearings in both the House and the Senate. There is much use in both firings for cause and in serious inquiries — as long as the first steer clear of scapegoating and the latter aim to edify.

Here’s the crux of the problem: The system wasn’t prepared for an influx of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan GIs with complicated and frequently devastating injuries, including “polytrauma” injuries, traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A great primer on the state of nonpartisan knowledge of the subject appeared in yesterday’s hearings in the form of testimony by the Government Accountability Office’s health care director, Cynthia A. Bascetta, who identified four chief areas of concern: (1) the transition of care between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, (2) the need for rehabilitation to begin as early and as effectively as possible, (3) the need to better screen for combat stress and (4) payment and paperwork problems. All of these areas are lacking. All have been studied in depth by GAO; they’re not new to people who have paid attention.

It’s time for both President Bush’s promised response and for the Democratic Congress to think big about solving these issues. This will undoubtedly entail large future budgetary commitments, from which neither should flinch.

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