Friday, September 21, 2007

Caring For Our Troops and Veterans

The Global War On Terrorism and resultant casualties among America’s warriors have revealed many of the inefficiencies and inadequacies of the health care system for our active troops and veterans. Gaps have also been shown in the health care transition process from active duty to civilian and retired status.

Some corrections have been made to these flaws, but there is still much work to do. Improvements and attention are needed at the national and local levels to assist them with the unique health care challenges developed during their service. For rural states like Nebraska, special needs exist because of the distances to military and VA treatment facilities.

It looks like help is on the way at the national level.

As an original sponsor, Senator Nelson has been instrumental in moving a very important piece of legislation forward that addresses many of the veterans health care needs revealed to us during this war. Some of the highlights of “The Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors Act” include:
A comprehensive policy for the care, management, and transition from the military to VA or civilian life of service members with combat-related injuries or illnesses
Authorization of medically retired service members to receive the active duty health care benefits for 3 years
Requirements for a comprehensive plan on prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, and treatment of Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and authorization of $50 million for improved diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of service members with these conditions
Provision of respite care for family members who care for injured service members
Improved travel reimbursements for retired personnel seeking continuing medical treatment
Defense Department reporting on existing conditions and criteria used for contracting with civilian rehabilitation providers

3rd District Congressman Adrian Smith has been pushing to address the needs of veterans in rural areas, highlighted by being one of the original co-chairs of the House Rural Veterans Caucus and one of the original cosponsors for legislation establishing the Office of Rural Health within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

He was a cosponsor for the HEALTHY Vets Act of 2007 which would require the VA Secretary to contract with local doctors and hospitals to provide medical services, including primary care, for those veterans who live far away from VA medical facilities.

He is also a cosponsor to the Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act of 2007. This legislation is intended to improve access and care for veterans living in rural and/or geographically remote areas. Smith also voted for the Veterans’ Health Care Improvement Act of 2007 which addresses many aspects of veterans’ health care, including grants for veterans in rural areas to be transported to medical facilities.

Additionally, he has been publicly critical of the VA cutting ties with St. Francis Medical Center in Grand Island because that action is contrary to the needs of rural vets.

Not to be overlooked in the delivery of services to our vets are the representatives who put this legislation into action for them, the people working “where the rubber meets the road,” our County Veterans Service Officers.

The rules and bureaucracy of the VA system have been likened to an octopus. In reality it’s probably more like a whole tank full of live octopus.

Our County Veterans Service Officers are the ones tasked with sorting through the tentacles of ever-changing rules and pointing vets in the right direction (or even driving them) for care and claims. They are the important liaisons who lead veterans to the points of delivery for the services available.

Their jobs aren’t getting any easier either with aging vets requiring more care, the influx of new war veterans, and the constant change of bureaucracy at the VA. But they are still successful in helping our veterans.

For example, according to the office in York County, the VA compensation and benefits being obtained through that office has increased from $1.3 million in 2002 to $4.5 million in 2006. Although roughly 1/3 of that amount is for claims filed by vets from other counties and states, it still increases, by about $1.7 million, the money coming into York county veterans. Those figures not only indicate an ever present need for services among our vets, but also reveal a county officer who is quite successful in sorting through the red tape to get them what they need.

We need to make sure our county governments are taking care of these successful county officers with the same zeal and enthusiasm with which those officers take care of our vets. Otherwise, we could end up not improving delivery of the services our Congressional delegation is working so hard to provide and improve.

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