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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 2, 2007

War brings reforms in healthcare

By Tom Philpott

If there are silver linings behind the grinding sacrifice and heartbreak that the invasion of Iraq has brought to the U.S. military, one of them is likely to be comprehensive reform to the way disabled military members and their families are helped by the government before and after leaving service.

The Senate Armed Services and Veterans' Affairs committees last month sprinted ahead of House colleagues, and ahead of various commissions and task forces, in the race to do whatever seems right and affordable for America's veterans, particularly wounded warriors.

The Veterans' Affairs committee, chaired by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, approved legislation Wednesday that would re-open the Department of Veterans Affairs health system to 1.7 million veterans in Priority Group 8, those who have adequate incomes and no service-connected ailments.

The Group 8 provision is in the Traumatic Brain Injury and Other Health Programs Enhancement Act (S. 1233).

Other provisions would:

  • Require the VA to develop individualized plans for rehabilitation and reintegration of veterans who suffer traumatic brain injury, or TBI, a signature injury of current wars where the enemy relies on roadside bombs.

  • Extend eligibility for VA healthcare for all combat veterans from two years up to five years after release or discharge. This would provide more time to identify and treat TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

  • Direct that VA enter into agreements with non-VA care facilities to provide TBI care and rehabilitation when VA care is not available within a reasonable distance.

  • Direct that VA conduct a five-year pilot program to assess the effectiveness of providing assisted-living services to veterans with TBI to enhance rehabilitation and quality of life.

    The committee grabbed its Group 8 language from a separate bill introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. It would order VA to rescind a four-year-old regulation that bans new Group 8 enrollments. VA Secretary Jim Nicholson would retain authority to impose the ban again. However, he would have to reaffirm that the ban is still necessary.

    The Democrats' answer to long lines for VA healthcare, he said, "is simply to get more people standing in line."

    But Akaka said all provisions of S. 1223 "complement" the Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors Act of 2007 (S. 1606) approved a week earlier by the Senate Armed Services Committee. S. 1606l, in turn, goes far beyond help for disabled veterans approved by the House in the spring.

    The Senate Armed Services committee, chaired by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., endorses a special review of disability ratings for all veterans who, since Sept. 11, 2001, have separated from service with disability severance pay rather then disability retirement. It's part of the committee's goal to enforce consistency in disability awards across the services and, to the extent possible, with the VA.

    To comment, e-mail milupdate@aol.com; write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va., 20120-1111; or visit www.militaryupdate.com.