WASHINGTON — Four years after a scandal exposed shortcomings in the treatment of America's wounded soldiers, top officials with the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs sought to assure Congress on Wednesday that vast improvements have been made. But it was a tough sell.
Democrat Patty Murray of Washington state, the chairwoman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the U.S. must step up its care for wounded soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including those most at risk of suicide and the 409 who've had limbs amputated.
"After a decade of continuous conflict, I am concerned that the nation is becoming desensitized to the physical and psychological wounds of war," Murray said. "While those watching on the nightly news may feel as though they have seen many such injuries, we can never forget how truly devastating some of these injuries are, and what an overwhelming impact they have on a service member or veteran's life, as well as on their family."
North Carolina's Richard Burr, the top Republican on the committee, said he was uncertain that much had changed since the scandal at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
"It has been four years since the issues at Walter Reed came to light, and I cannot help but wonder if what we have done is to just create more bureaucracy," Burr said.
The hearing, the first of two parts, followed a critical report that the Government Accountability Office released last week. It found that the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have failed to streamline services and share records, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars. The report also said the departments lacked specific plans and time frames to correct the situation.
But Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn told the committee that the two departments "have established a programmatic cohesion" that's better than ever before.
"More so than at any time in our nation's history, soldiers who separate from the service are greeted by more comprehensive mental and physical care, by greater opportunity for education and jobs, and by a deeper societal commitment to ensuring their welfare," Lynn said. "Especially when you compare the experience of our troops today to the generation of heroes who returned from Vietnam, the progress we have made toward a single system of lifetime care is significant."
Scott Gould, the deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the two departments "have made major strides" in the last two years in sharing health and benefits data, which is leading to better care.
He also said veterans were benefiting from a suicide prevention crisis line, which has fielded more than 400,000 calls and led to more than 14,000 "rescues" since it began in July 2007.
When the hearing resumes next week, Murray said, she plans to bring in veterans to share firsthand accounts of trying to navigate the bureaucracy.
Addressing Lynn and Gould, she said: "When we send service members into harm's way, it is our non-negotiable duty to take care of them when they return home."
She blamed "bureaucratic infighting" between the departments for holding up centers of excellence to treat those with amputations and extremity injuries.
"With the rates of injuries requiring amputation rising, we need to have the best possible care," Murray said. "Not long ago, the idea that battlefield medicine could save the life of a quadruple amputee was unthinkable, but now it is the reality."
On another topic, the VA said it had aided 625 veterans under its new caregivers program since it began receiving applications a week ago.
For the first time, the program pays family members to care for wounded veterans at home, offering them stipends, mental health services and access to health insurance if they need it.
"We are off to a good start, having helped hundreds to apply, but we know there are thousands more who will qualify and need to apply today," Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2011