STATEMENTS ON INTRODUCED BILLS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS -- (Senate - June 13, 2007)
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Mr. MCCAIN. Mr. President, as ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee I am pleased to co-sponsor the Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors Act, which would ensure that wounded and injured members of the Armed Forces receive the care and benefits that they deserve.
We were all surprised and deeply disappointed by the conditions at Walter Reed and the problems that our wounded warriors faced after their inpatient care was complete, living in substandard conditions at Building 18, being treated poorly, battling a Cold War-era disability evaluation process, and for some, simply falling through the cracks.
Since February of 2007, many encouraging changes have been initiated by the Department of Defense. First and foremost, Secretary Gates established and enforced a culture of accountability for the leadership failures that lead to the tragedy at Walter Reed. Medical facilities have now been inspected by all three military departments, and improvements are underway. Additional counselors and support has been provided to families. On April 25, 2007, a new Warrior Transition Brigade stood up at Walter Reed to manage all the needs of wounded and ill soldiers, both Active and Reserve. DOD has begun to exert greater management responsibility for the disability evaluation systems of the military departments. We are on the right track to address the problems at Walter Reed and at other hospitals. We need to ensure that the effort is sustained. This legislation will ensure that these efforts continue.
The legislation requires that the Secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs work together to develop new policy to better manage the care and transition of our wounded soldiers. This policy would address many of the concerns that have been raised by wounded soldiers and their families, conditions while in a medical hold status, the need to streamline and make more transparent the medical and physical evaluation board processes, policies that facilitate the return to duty for soldiers who are able, and a policy governing the smooth transition of separating service members from the Department of Defense to the Department of Veterans Affairs which focuses on the needs of patients.
This legislation would improve health care benefits to severely wounded soldiers by extending their health care benefits as if the member were on active duty for a period of up to 5 years. This approach ensures that our most severely wounded have as many health care options as possible, especially for treatment of traumatic brain injury and other long term serious conditions.
This legislation authorizes additional funding for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder and requires the establishment of two centers of excellence for the prevention, research and treatment on these consequences of war. This legislation would also require DOD to develop a comprehensive plan for research, prevention and treatment of traumatic brain injury, which is long overdue in addressing the so-called signature injury of this war.
The administration requested, and this bill would provide, additional authorities to the Department of Defense to hire health care professionals to care for our service members and their families. It would also require the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs to jointly develop an electronic health record that can easily be shared between the two departments.
With respect to disability determinations for wounded warriors who leave military service, this legislation would require the Secretary of Defense to establish a special review board to independently review the findings and decisions of the Physical Evaluation Boards of the military departments since 2001, in cases in which the disability rates of 20 percent or less were awarded and members were not medically retired. We must act, in light of data showing that some members, particularly junior enlisted soldiers, may have unfairly been denied medical retirement. This legislation empowers the special board to correct military records and, if appropriate, restore to a wounded soldier a higher disability rating or retired status.
The bill would also end the requirement that disabled service members pay back severance pay if they obtain a higher disability rating from the VA, and increase the amount of severance pay that separating members receive.
To address the need for fundamental change in the way that the DOD and VA disability evaluation systems are structured, a belief shared by many of my colleagues, this legislation would require the Secretary of Defense to immediately implement pilot projects to test new improvements to the disability evaluation system. Such pilot programs will help expedite implementation of needed changes to the disability evaluation system.
This legislation would also require the Secretary of Defense to establish uniform standards for medical treatment facilities and medical residential housing facilities, and a DOD investment strategy to remedy all medical facility deficiencies. It would also require the Secretary of Defense to study the feasibility of accelerated construction of state-of-the art facilities and consolidation of patient care services at the new National Medical Center at Bethesda. As a condition for the closure of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, it would require the Secretary of Defense to certify that health care services would remain available in their totality until the new facility and staff are in place to effect a seamless transfer of care. The current facilities at Walter Reed have served the Nation well, but we can and must do better.
This legislation is a start on the journey to restore trust for America's wounded and her veterans, but it is not our final destination. It will take time to understand fully the complexities of the DOD and VA disability systems and to reconcile them in the best interests of our wounded veterans.
We must also look to the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve access to care for wounded veterans and improvements in its handling of veterans claims for disabilities. We must ensure that the VA maintains a robust medical infrastructure for quality health care, teaching and research, but one that also supports veterans beyond the limits of bricks and mortar in communities throughout the nation. I am developing legislation which would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish health care access standards for veterans with a service-connected disability throughout the VA health care delivery system, and, similar to DOD's TRICARE system, when services cannot be provided by the VA, authorize that care to be purchased from civilian providers. Civilian health care specialists are eager to do their part for America's veterans. Given the strain on the veterans health system, and the limits to our resources, we should give them that chance, and make certain that our Nation's veterans get the care that they need, when they need it.
There is no more important responsibility than to act on our moral obligation as a Nation to those who are willing to give their blood for its freedom. Let us continue to be guided by the words of President George Washington in 1789, who said, ``the willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country.''
I hope that my colleagues will join Senator Levin and me in a bipartisan effor