WASHINGTON — A 4-year-old program designed to speed up veterans benefits for wounded troops likely won’t be fully operational until 2013, and even then will take about 300 days to process each new case, defense officials acknowledged Wednesday.
Senators said programs such as the disability processing pilot suggest that Pentagon and Veterans Affairs officials have made limited progress on improving care for wounded troops in the wake of the 2007 Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal.
“The idea for developing these joint programs was to cut through the bureaucracy and create a better transition for both veterans and their families,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “It’s now been four years, and I cannot help but wonder if what we have done is just create more bureaucracy.”
But agency officials told lawmakers they believe substantial progress has been made, and that the two departments are working more closely than ever to care for wounded troops and ease their transition back to civilian life.
Veterans Affairs and defense officials scrambled to improve patient monitoring, recovery and transition out of the military following a Washington Post exposé on care failures at Walter Reed. One of those steps was the Integrated Disability Evaluation System, designed to give wounded troops a single, simple path out of the military.
Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn said the IDES should be in place at more than 140 military installations this fall, and it has already brought down the average outprocessing time for wounded troops from more than 500 days to just under 400.
But the department’s goal is to have that exit process take less than 10 months, and Lynn acknowledged that officials may still need two more years to make that a reality.
“I cannot overstate how far the department has come with our VA partners in the last four years ... but despite these significant achievements, we should not underestimate what still needs to be done,” he said.
Senate Veterans Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she still hears anecdotes from veterans who complain that VA facilities aren’t receiving prosthetics care they need, or who feel that physicians are overmedicating them instead of dealing with underlying physical and mental issues.
Lawmakers also expressed concern that 13 servicemembers in joint department transition programs have committed suicide or died from drug overdoses in recent years, asking whether officials have truly improved their monitoring of at-risk patients.
“When we send servicemembers into harm’s way, it is our non-negotiable duty to take care of them when they return home,” Murray said. “Providing the best possible care and benefits to veterans is a cost of war, a cost that must be paid in full.”
Wednesday’s hearing was the first in a series by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to look at VA and DOD collaboration efforts. Servicemembers who have been through the process are scheduled to testify before the committee about their experiences next week.