VA Chief Outlines Panel’s Recommendations on Services for Wounded Vets
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 9, 2007 – There’s a new era of cooperation within the federal government to work together to provide services for troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson told the House Veterans Affairs Committee today.
Nicholson reported on recommendations of the Interagency Task Force on Returning War on Terror Heroes. President Bush formed the group in early March, following revelations about problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, to assess federal services and benefits for returning combat troops.
The chairman gave the task force, chaired by Nicholson, 45 days to review federal benefits and processes to identify gaps in services that could be filled quickly without the need for additional legislative authority or funding.
The goal, Nicholson said, was to find ways to immediately improve services for returning troops and to better reach out to them and their families to make the aware of services available to them.
“So all in all, our focus is really very simple,” Nicholson told the committee. “It is to make the existing services that are there in the federal government the very best they can be for our veterans and for their families and for the survivors of those who paid the ultimate price.”
Nicholson reported the group’s 25 recommendations to President Bush 23. In today’s testimony, he highlighted some of the most significant ones.
These include new cooperative arrangements between the VA and Defense Department to improve wounded troops’ transition between the two departments’ systems, he said. Among new initiatives are:
-- A new joint process to be developed to provide more consistent and faster processing of disability determinations.
-- Screening of all global war on terror veterans who seek VA support for any form of brain injury resulting from concussive blasts or other combat conditions. “We want to identify it as early as possible and begin treatment,” Nicholson said.
-- A simpler enrollment process — both online and in person — to enroll for health care services and benefits.
-- Continued development of what Nicholson calls VA’s “world standard” in electronic medical records.
-- More action within the Defense Department to increase attendance at Transition Assistance Program briefings to better educate veterans about their benefits. “The more our veterans understand about their benefits, the more successful their transition to civilian life will become,” Nicholson said.
Other U.S. government agencies will collaborate to provide additional or more complete services, Nicholson said. Examples include:
-- VA and the Department of Health and Human Services will work to improve access to care for returning servicemembers in remote or rural areas.
-- The Small Business Administration is expanding eligibility for the Patriot Express Loan Program. This will help provide a full range of lending, business counseling and procurement programs for veterans, service-disabled veterans, reservists and families seeking to become self-employed, Nicholson explained.
-- The Defense Department and Department of Labor are working to improve civilian work force credentialing and certification. This, Nicholson said, will help servicemembers translate their military experience into civilian job opportunities.
-- The Department of Housing and Urban Development is expanding access to the National Housing Locator for servicemembers. “By expanding its use, returning servicemembers will have a resource that provides safe, affordable, and if needed, disability-accessible housing to ease a potential relocation to a new geographic area,” Nicholson said.
-- The Department of Education, in cooperation with the Department of Labor, will participate in Defense Department job fairs. The goal, Nicholson told the committee, is to provide returning servicemembers and their families more awareness of post-secondary-education benefits available to them.
-- The Department of Education will provide education benefits training to the 211 Transition Assistance Program sites that service more than 150,000 transitioning servicemembers every year.
-- The Office of Personnel Management will expand its military treatment facility outreach to promote the availability of federal employment and veterans preference rights.
Nicholson said these collaborative efforts will help ensure returning war veterans receive the services and care they deserve. The goal, he said, is “to assure that our veterans receive the very best care possible in an environment of care that is appropriate to that care.”
The task force included Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alfonso Jackson, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman, Small Business Administration Administrator Steven Preston and Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer.
Another group, led by former Sen. Bob Dole and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, is slated to report its findings to Bush by late July.