WASHINGTON — Legislation to ensure quality care for wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan was unveiled in the Senate Thursday, winning instant praise from veterans organizations.
"The days of not paying attention to our service members are over," declared Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a leading force behind the legislation for the Senate Democratic leadership.
The bipartisan legislation, called the Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors Act, follows reports of deplorable housing for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
But similar conditions and bureaucratic red tape interfering with the treatment of soldiers injured on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan were found at facilities around the country.
The legislation requires a comprehensive policy on the care of veterans as they move from active military duty into Department of Veterans Affairs facilities, including adoption of the VA standards for assigning disability levels.
Wounded veterans have complained that the Defense Department under-reports the extent of their injuries to avoid having to pay medical retirement. Then when they move into the VA system, it takes weeks to get appointments for treatment of conditions often found to be worse than reported by the Defense Department.
The sweeping legislation had the instant support of veterans organizations, including two of the biggest — Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans.
Eric Hilleman, deputy director of national legislative services for the VFW, called the bill "powerful."
"This is a huge piece of legislation done in record time," he said.
Richard Daley, associate legislative director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, said the scandalous conditions at Walter Reed have spawned an onslaught of remedial legislation in the House of Representatives and Senate.
"This could be one of the best years for veterans in decades," Daley said.
The legislation sets up a board to review and correct determinations of medical retirement eligibility since 2001. It also shifts the presumption in favor of service-connected injury, reducing conflicts over injuries the military had categorized as pre-existing.
The bill increases the pay injured soldiers receive when mustered out of the service. It also requires better housing for the wounded and deeper research into the kind of injuries common to this war, particularly traumatic brain injury caused by powerful explosions.
Proponents of the bill said injured soldiers receive superior battlefield care but then fall into a bureaucratic chasm as they transition to the VA.
"This gap is going to be covered," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which approved the measure 25-0 Thursday. "Our troops absolutely deserve that."
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the Armed Services Committee's senior Republican, said the legislation "has the hallmark of being totally bipartisan."
While the legislation authorizes $50 million for more research into post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury, funding will come through annual appropriations for the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Pentagon.
Another feature of the legislation is medical help for the families of injured soldiers. Spouses often dedicate themselves to the care of their wounded soldiers, giving up their jobs and medical insurance to do so. The provision extends VA medical coverage to a spouse for three years when the injured soldier has a disability rating of 50 percent or higher.