Monday, March 05, 2007

Obama Steps Up For Wounded Troops

In the wake of the scandal surrounding the conditions endured by some Veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) introduced two pieces of legislation last week to create a more suitable level of care for wounded troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama introduced, S. 713, the Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act, legislation written to "ensure dignity in care for members of the Armed Forces recovering from injuries," which has been referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee for review.

"Last week, the Nation learned of the serious problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center including decaying, cockroach-infested facilities and an overwhelmed patient-care bureaucracy," said Obama in introducing his bill last week. "As described in a series of articles in the Washington Post by Dana Priest and Anne Hull, wounded soldiers are returning home from the battle in Iraq only to face a new battle to get the care and benefits they have earned."

The Democratic presidential candidate's legislation is already cosponsored by 23 Senators, with only three of those -- Kit Bond (R-MO), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) -- coming from the Republican side of the aisle.

Obama's legislation would fix conditions at outpatient VA residence facilities by setting higher standards -- such as stipulations that recovering soldiers' rooms will be as good or better as the best standard rooms for active-duty troops -- and increasing administration accountability. The bill also provides for expedited repair of maintenance problems in the facilities and, as Obama put it last week, "zero tolerance for pest infestations."

The bill would also mandate that emergency medical personnel and crisis counselors be available to recovering troops 24 hours a day.

"The stories out of Walter Reed last week did shock my conscience because, like many Senators, I have made the half-hour trek from the Capitol to visit Walter Reed. And I saw what the Army wanted the world to see: a shining world-class facility where the wounded can heal with state-of-the-art care," said Obama. "I never saw mold growing on the walls, or broken elevators, or the lack of adequate support for soldiers and their families. Walter Reed was supposed to be the flagship of military health care. Instead it has become an emblem of much that is wrong with the system, and a harbinger of more severe problems that may be hiding at other military hospitals and facilities that are not in the spotlight."

In addition to providing for greatly streamlined administration and reduced paperwork for wounded troops upon returning to the states -- "there's no reason why a soldier with a gunshot injury to the spine should face the same procedural hurdles in order to prove his injury was service-related," said Obama -- the bill has interesting provisions to protect family member who are suddenly faced with the full-time job of caring for an injured loved one.

"This bipartisan legislation provides federal protections against a family member on invitational orders being fired," said the Illinois Senator. "I think we can all agree that a mother should never have to choose between caring for a wounded son or daughter and keeping her job."

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) quickly joined Obama as a cosponsor and said she was sickened when she learned of the conditions faced by some troops after returning wounded from the Iraq battle zone.

"It is not often that you read something in the paper that makes you sick, but this is precisely the feeling I had just over a week ago as I read a Washington Post article that spoke of awful living conditions and an interminable bureaucracy being experienced by our war wounded who are receiving outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center," said McCaskill last week. "I will not stand aside as those who have fought for our country come home to fight new battles against a crippling bureaucracy just to get the compensation they have more than earned. They shouldn't have to live in substandard conditions while they are recovering from their injuries."

In addition to the Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act, Obama also stepped up to the plate and introduced S.692, a bill that would modify federal law to establish a "Hospital Quality Report Card Initiative to report on health care quality in Veterans Affairs hospitals."

That legislation would require that the Veterans Administration report twice a year on the quality of health care at VA hospitals including an ongoing assessment of "health care effectiveness, safety, timeliness, efficiency, patient-centeredness and equity."

The bill, which has been referred to the Senate Veterans Affair Committee, is another example of the leadership Obama is showing both in trying to end the Iraq war and in fighting to ensure that America's troops are truly supported when they return home.

Said Obama last week: "Our injured troops did not hesitate to fight for us on the battlefield -- we shouldn't make them fight again at home in order to receive the care they deserve."