Biden Introduces Bill to Improve Care Services for Members of the Armed Forces and Veterans
Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D-DE) introduced legislation this week to improve the care that members of the Armed Forces and veterans receive at Walter Reed and other military medical facilities and to help deal with the increased case load on the VA system due to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sen. Biden's legislation - the Effective Care for the Armed Forces and Veterans Act of 2007 - will prohibit private contracts for maintenance at military medical facilities during times of conflict; prevent budget cuts to military medical services when the country is at war; require the Army to present complete plans for Walter Reed BRAC before any action is taken; update the military's electronic medical record system; and require the VA to come up with a 50 year plan to deal with the hundreds of thousands of veterans from the current wars.
"President Bush and his administration have failed to adequately plan for the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Senator Biden. "The shameful conditions at Walter Reed, lack of rehabilitative care for the brain injured, and backlogs of claims and disability determinations are symptoms of a strained system. It is our highest obligation to heal the hundreds of thousands of brave men and women who will bear the physical and emotional scars of these wars for the rest of their lives."
Specifically, Sen. Biden's legislation will:
Prohibit and Review Privatization at Military Medical Facilities. There is no compelling evidence that privatization of services saves money or improves management of facilities at military medical facilities. In fact, as the terrible living conditions for soldiers and marines receiving outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center indicate, moving to private contracts for maintenance can cause problems. This legislation will prohibit public-private competitions for services at military medical complexes while our country is engaged in military conflicts. It also calls for a GAO review of contracting-out decisions for basic maintenance work at military facilities and for private medical services.
Prevent Budget Cuts to Military Medical Care. Many of the problems at Walter Reed are directly attributable to shortages resulting from pressures to cut budgets for military medical services. These cuts cannot be tolerated at a time when military medical services are needed to treat service members who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, medical command budgets must equal or exceed the prior year amount while the nation is involved in a major military conflict or war unless the President of the United States certifies that it is in the national interest to do so and provides justification for such waiver.
Require the Army to Present Complete Plans for Walter Reed BRAC before any action is taken. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended building new, modern facilities at the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda and at Fort Belvoir to improve the overall quality of care and access to care in this region. But military leaders have indicated that the planned closure has limited their ability to attract needed professionals to jobs at Walter Reed and concerns have been raised about whether adequate housing for the families of the wounded have been properly planned. This legislation requires the Department of Defense to submit to Congress within one year a detailed plan that includes an evaluation of the following: the desirability of being able to guarantee professional jobs in the Washington, DC area for two years or more following the closure; detailed construction plans for the new facilities and for new family housing; the costs and benefits of building all of the needed medical treatment, rehabilitation, and housing before a single unit is moved.
Improve Patient Care for Service Members. Caseworkers are important for scheduling appointments and making sure wounded service members get the care they need. With the large number of wounded service members under their purview, many military caseworkers are overwhelmed. To improve the care given to service members, this legislation recommends: a) the ratio of case managers to patients should not exceed 1 to 20 recovering service members; b) that case managers will have contact with recovering service members at least once a week; and c) that case managers be properly trained on the military's disability and discharge systems so they can better assist patients with their paperwork.
Require Every Returning Soldier to be Screened for Traumatic Brain Injury And Make Traumatic Brain Injury A "Presumptive Condition" For Service Members Returning From Afghanistan or Iraq. As many as 10 percent of the members of the Armed Forces who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan have sustained brain injuries - 150,000 of 1.5 million soldiers thus far. In many cases, these injuries are not diagnosed because there is not an external wound. This section calls for every returning soldier to be screened for Traumatic Brain Injury. While the VA has announced plans to do this, it needs to happen in active-duty military medical facilities too. The legislation calls for a study on the advisability of treating TBI as a presumptive condition in every service's disability evaluation system, as well as the VA disability evaluation system.
Update the Military Electronic Medical Record System. The Department of Veterans Affairs has been a leader in implementing electronic medical record keeping. The Department of Defense must have information systems capable of communicating with those of the VA. This legislation would direct the Department of Defense to have an electronic medical records management system that communicates with the VA's system within one year of enactment.
Plan for Long-Term Care Needs. Multiple studies show that the Department of Veterans Affairs can expect to add hundreds of thousands of additional veterans to their system in the next five years, with many of the veterans having multiple care needs based on complex medical conditions. This section directs the Secretary of the Veterans Affairs to submit to Congress within one year of enactment a report on the long-term care needs of the next generation of veterans. This report shall present a plan for the next fifty years.