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Statements On Introduced Bills And Joint Resolutions

Location: Washington, DC



By Mr. OBAMA. (for himself, Mrs. McCaskill, Mr. Baucus, Mr. Bayh, Mr. Biden, Mr. Bingaman, Mr. Bond, Mrs. Boxer, Mr. Brown, Ms. Cantwell, Mr. Dorgan, Mr. Durbin, Mr. Feingold, Mr. Kerry, Ms. Klobuchar, Ms. Landrieu, Ms. Mikulski, Ms. Murkowski, Mr. Pryor, Mr. Rockefeller, Mr. Sanders, Ms. Snowe, and Mr. Conrad):

S. 713. A bill to ensure dignity in care for members of the Armed Forces recovering from injuries; to the Committee on Armed Services.

Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise today to speak about the ``Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act,' which I am proud to introduce with Senator McCaskill.

Last week, the Nation learned of the serious problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center including decaying, cockroach-infested facilities and an overwhelmed patient-care bureaucracy. As described in a series of articles in the Washington Post by Dana Priest and Anne Hull, wounded soldiers are returning home from the battle in Iraq only to face a new battle to get the care and benefits they have earned.

These stories should not have come as a complete surprise to those who have followed the issue closely. We have long known that troops returning from battle face numerous bureaucratic hurdles when they get home. That's why I introduced legislation last year to smooth the transition from active duty to civilian life. The Lane Evans Bill expands and improves electronic medical records, face-to-face physical exams, better tracking of veterans, and other approaches to make life easier for returning veterans.

However, the stories out of Walter Reed last week did shock my conscience because, like many Senators, I have made the half-hour trek from the Capitol to visit Walter Reed. And I saw what the Army wanted the world to see: a shining world-class facility where the wounded can heal with state-of-the-art care. I never saw mold growing on the walls, or broken elevators, or the lack of adequate support for soldiers and their families. Walter Reed was supposed to be the flagship of military health care. Instead it has become an emblem of much that is wrong with the system, and a harbinger of more severe problems that may be hiding at other military hospitals and facilities that are not in the spotlight.

The problems at Walter Reed stem from complex causes, the most important of which is that the military and VA have not yet prepared for the growing flood of casualties from the Iraq war. Our injured troops did not hesitate to fight for us on the battlefield--we shouldn't make them fight again at home in order to receive the care they deserve. That is why Senator McCaskill and I are introducing the bipartisan Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act today. The bill will fix the problems at Walter Reed and improve care at our military hospitals and facilities.

Our bill would fix deplorable conditions at outpatient residence facilities by setting high standards and increasing accountability. Under this bipartisan measure, the standards will be clear. First, recovering soldiers' rooms will be as good or better as the best standard rooms for active-duty troops. Second, our injured heroes will not have to wait more than two weeks for maintenance problems to be repaired. Third, we will have zero tolerance for pest infestations. And finally, emergency medical personnel and crisis counselors will be available to recovering troops 24 hours a day.

The bill also tackles accountability problems. In the days following the Post stories, the Army vice chief of staff, and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs both said they were surprised by conditions at Walter Reed and directed blame on lower-ranking officers and noncommissioned officers. I also read in the Army Times that soldiers at Walter Reed have been warned not to talk to the media. Under our bill, we won't have to rely on the media to inform the Congress and the American people of the conditions at military hospitals. It requires that the Inspector General inspect facilities twice a year and report conditions to high-level officials and the public. Under our bill, military leaders will no longer be able to use the excuse that they didn't know conditions on the ground.

When injured servicemembers return home, they along with their family members face a mountain of paperwork and bureaucracy. From the moment a doctor determines a soldier may be unable to return to duty, it takes an average of 209 days for the military to figure out what to do with the soldier. The system is broken, and soldiers and their families are the ones who pay the price. Our bill addresses this problem by bringing the far flung parts of the military's Physical Disability Evaluation System (PDES) under one roof in each branch of the military. It also puts much of the system online so that caseworkers and servicemembers can manage their documents electronically. Today, students can apply to go to law school or business school online, without ever having to touch a piece of paper. Navigating the Pentagon bureaucracy should be that easy.

Our bill also calls for injury-specific procedures so that the most severely injured servicemembers can skip unnecessary steps. There's no reason why a soldier with a gunshot injury to the spine should face the same procedural hurdles in order to prove his injury was service-related as a soldier with less severe injuries. At the same time, nothing in our bill will prevent those servicemembers who wish to stay in the military from appealing decisions. Our bill also helps soldiers and their families navigate the PDES system with new hotlines, manuals, and an ombudsman to help answer questions.

Another problem at Walter Reed is casework. The caseworkers are doing amazing work helping soldiers schedule medical appointments, prepare paperwork, and obtain their everyday needs. However, the caseworkers are overwhelmed. Some have to care for 50 or more recovering soldiers at a time, more than double the ideal ratio. The Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act fixes this problem by forcing the Pentagon to work with each military hospital to set the ideal ratio of caseworkers to patients based on the particular needs of that facility. In the interim, our bill requires a temporary ratio of 1 caseworker for every 20 recovering servicemembers. This will push the Pentagon to begin hiring and training caseworkers right away.

This legislation also provides important new support for family members who often have to endure economic and emotional hardship to accompany their loved one through the recovery process and the currently flawed PDES process. It clarifies that non-medical attendees and family members on invitational orders may receive medical care and mental health counseling while caring for injured loved ones at military facilities. It extends employment and job placement training services to family members. And most important, this bipartisan legislation provides federal protections against a family member on invitational orders being fired. I think we can all agree that a mother should never have to choose between caring for a wounded son or daughter and keeping her job.

Secretary Gates promised a thorough investigation by outside experts and accountability for those responsible. Our bill builds on that model by establishing an Oversight Board of outside experts to review the Pentagon's progress in implementing this bill. The Board would be appointed by Congress and the executive branch and be made up of veterans, wounded soldiers, family members and experts on military medicine. The Oversight Board will be an important check to make sure the Defense Department is following through to care for recovering troops.

We cannot move fast enough to make sure our wounded troops are getting the care they need. No cost is too great. We must pass the Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act quickly and follow up with the adequate resources to ensure the men and women recovering at military hospitals across the world get the best care we can offer.


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