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Op-Ed: Veterans Move Closer to Getting the Care They Deserve

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The brave men and women who serve our country in uniform deserve the very best when they come home. But far too many veterans return to confront a sea of red tape. The systems for providing care and support are being overwhelmed by service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and the aging of the Vietnam-era veterans. More than 30,000 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq and many have difficult and complex injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

More than 1 million disabled veterans are expected to face a backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs in the next year. Too often, these veterans are asked to navigate an outdated claims system and a maze of rules that can defy common sense.

Both of us have met New York veterans who have shared heartbreaking stories. There was Raymond Sumner of New York City, who was severely disabled by a bullet to the hip while serving his second tour in Iraq. He chose a vocational rehabilitation program that he hoped would help him rebuild his life. But his requests to the VA for approval were passed from office to office without resolution, and he was left waiting and waiting.

And there was World War II Navy veteran Ken MacDonald of Buchanan, who fought for 60 years to receive disability compensation for wounds suffered when twice his ship was sunk out from under him.

We were able to help both Sumner and MacDonald, but unfortunately these stories are not isolated examples. It shouldn't take intervention from your representatives in Congress to receive the benefits you've earned in service to this country.

That is why we introduced — and helped pass in Congress — important new legislation to overhaul the VA benefit claims system. Key provisions we authored were included in the recently enacted Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2008. With this legislation, we'll reform the delivery of compensation to veterans, their families and their survivors and create a more veteran-friendly VA.

First, we removed a major obstacle to veterans quickly receiving benefits for undisputed and severe service-related injuries, such as paralysis or missing limbs. Veterans currently have to wait for all of their injuries, including complex and invisible wounds like traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, to be evaluated, processed and rated by the VA before receiving any benefits. The average wait is six months. We changed that with our legislation.

Second, we took steps to revise the outdated rating system for injuries that so often fails to account for the real impact of an injury on quality of life and future earnings.

Third, we established an Office of Survivor Relations to assist family members of deceased veterans. Currently, if a veteran dies while a claim is being processed, survivors must restart the claim process. We'll put a stop to that.

Fourth, we required a plan to modernize VA record-keeping with comprehensive information technology. This will reduce backlogs and errors and finally allow a seamless handoff of medical records from the Defense Department to the VA.

These changes have been urgently needed for far too long. In his second inaugural, even as the Civil War continued, Abraham Lincoln urged Americans "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." This remains our duty. Our veterans and their families deserve the best, and it's time we give them exactly that.

Hillary Rodham Clinton represents New York in the United States Senate and John Hall recently won election to his second term representing New York's 19th Congressional District.

This column appeared in the Middletown Times Herald-Record.

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