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Bill would ensure collection of medical data on deployed troops

WASHINGTON—As the war in Iraq drags on, two senators want to tighten up the system that tracks the health of troops sent overseas.

Republican Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri and Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York will introduce a bill this week that would establish a system to ensure that the military collects baseline medical data on deployed troops.

The soldiers would be checked before and after duty overseas. The health information would help doctors determine whether soldiers were exposed to materials that harmed their health.

"We have overseas deployments and we do not get an adequate baseline read on our men and women before we send them, and they come back and develop symptoms and we really don't have any grounds to stand on in terms of trying to determine what is it that's wrong with them," Talent said at a news conference with Clinton on Tuesday.

The issue gained prominence after the Gulf War, when many soldiers reported suffering from a malady that became known as Gulf War Syndrome.

Congress passed a law in 1997 that required the military to conduct pre- and post-deployment medical assessments and blood samples.

The Kansas City Star, however, reported last year a few weeks before the war began that neither the health assessments nor blood tests were being conducted. Congress held hearings and demanded that the Pentagon follow the law.

Clinton said the new bill would make it tougher for the military to avoid a systematic collection of the medical data by requiring regular audits of the blood collection program and the pre- and post-deployment assessments.

Veterans groups support the bill.

"You prevent people who might be taking advantage of the system. You will promote speedy access to people who deserve care, and it helps show that if you are injured, your government is going to take care of you instead of throwing up its hands saying, `Sorry. We don't know what happened to you because we didn't take records,'" said Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resources Center and a former Army Ranger.

Talent and Clinton said their bill also would address the problem of sending soldiers overseas who had serious medical or dental problems.

The Star reported in March that the military was sending Guard and Reserve troops to Iraq who were medically unfit, including soldiers with asthma, extreme high blood pressure and heart problems. The soldiers said the problems either weren't noted or were disregarded.

The General Accounting Office also has reported on Reserve units with high numbers of troops that hadn't met medical or dental standards.

Talent and Clinton's bill would require the military to establish policies to specify when medical treatment may be deferred until after deployment and provided in theater, and when treatment should be given beforehand.

Their bill also would mandate that when Reserve or Guard members are determined to be medically unfit for their assignments, they should be reassigned to a post for which they are qualified or discharged if that isn't possible.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.