Veteran health-care bills languish in Congress

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 17, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Despite an abundance of tributes to the heroism and patriotism of wounded veterans, Congress might leave town to campaign before acting on key bills to help them.

Some of the delays are due to politics, which angers veterans advocates.

"It's still surprising to me the extent to which you have to fight when everyone in Congress would say they support the troops and they want to help veterans," said Vanessa Williamson, the policy director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Some bills are caught in the traffic jam of legislation, and it can take time to get all the interested parties — including the Department of Veterans Affairs and veterans' groups with different agendas — on board.

More than 70 separate bills are pending just to improve mental health services alone, Williamson said. Many would make it easier for veterans to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and substance abuse.

Those conditions are increasing among returning troops, according to experts. Health-care caseworkers and veterans activists are alarmed because the system can't keep up with the demand.

"Part of the problem with PTSD right now is they do not have enough mental health providers for these guys," said Kathy Lee, a Veterans of Foreign Wars service officer and former Army nurse.

"They're scheduling appointments, and some are a month or two down the line," said Lee, who counsels former troops at the Veterans Administration hospital in Kansas City, Mo. "Some need to be seen, like now. It's the same with (traumatic brain injury). There're only so many neurologists around to do all the testing."

The story of Army reservist Matt Baker, of Archie, Mo., is a prime example of problems that veterans advocates hope could be avoided with the pending legislation.

Baker, 35, didn't get tested for traumatic brain injury, or TBI, until more than two years after he was injured. By that time, he already had undergone two surgeries to repair his back and had been called "a poster child for PTSD" by a civilian physician whom he saw.

Baker, a staff sergeant and gunner with a reserve unit out of Wichita, Kan., injured his head and back when he was thrown from his Humvee while on patrol in Iraq in 2004.

He spent his nine-month tour taking "lots of ibuprofen" because Army doctors never X-rayed him, Baker said. He was finally diagnosed with TBI last fall, more than three years after his injures. He has undergone a lot of therapy.

"I'm aggravated that it took so long to find out," said Baker, who is now studying business management at a community college. "Everyone started messing me around for so long."

Also stalled on Capitol Hill is a groundbreaking bill to improve health-care services for women veterans. Many VA hospitals and clinics are not equipped to offer even basic women's services, such as mammograms.

Another bill would help families caring for seriously disabled veterans by providing training. Legislation also is pending to make VA health care funding mandatory, like the spending for Social Security and Medicaid, which is assured every year.

"These have been issues we've worked on for this entire Congress," said Joe Violante, the legislative director of Disabled American Veterans. "Here it is the end of this Congress and it doesn't look like they're going to be able to do anything."

The group urged the House and Senate leadership in a letter last week to "stand up for veterans" and "enhance the health care of sick, injured and disabled veterans, particularly those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan."

Veterans won't come away from the session completely empty handed. Congress approved a new GI bill that expands education benefits, a record increase in funding for health care and a new suicide prevention hotline program.

"This Congress has focused more on veterans' issues than we have seen in some time," said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the author of the women's health-care bill. "But because of the enormity of the issue we're facing — the continuing backlog of claims, the higher suicide rate — there is a lot more to do."

Last week the House approved legislation introduced by Republican Rep. Jerry Moran of Kansas that would make it easier for rural veterans to get health care.

They could use local medical services in parts of the country, such as his expansive district in Kansas, where the nearest VA hospital or clinic can be several hours away.

"It's been a long effort," Moran said, acknowledging that the chances were slim that his bill would get through the Senate before adjournment.

Moran, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said inaction on so much legislation was really a symptom of "the inability of Congress to get its work done."

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