WASHINGTON — House lawmakers on Wednesday said they favor a new ombudsman office for the Department of Veterans Affairs, assigned to field and fix complaints of patients’ difficulties in getting their benefits.
Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee delayed an anticipated vote on a measure creating the post during a hearing Wednesday morning, but said they expect to amend and approve the idea in coming weeks.
The legislation under consideration, sponsored by Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., would charge the ombudsman with serving as a liaison for "all veterans and their family members." The new VA post and supporting office staff would be included within the existing budget.
Hodes’ staff said specific hiring and staffing details would be left to the department, but they’d expect a hot line for veterans complaints and personnel to investigate specific individuals problems and related broader issues.
VA officials oppose the bill, saying it creates an extra layer of bureaucracy for services the department already handles. Such an effort could confuse veterans, ultimately making them wait longer for answers.
But committee members on Wednesday said they still see gaps in the department’s response to veterans concerns, despite months of work to provide quicker and easier response.
"Too many veterans now think that VA stands for ‘veterans’ adversary,’ " said committee chairman Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif. "The point of this move would be to make sure someone is working for the veterans, to help them."
In December, the department began hiring new care coordinators to help severely ill and injured servicemembers get medical appointments, disability payments, family assistance and related benefits.
Lawmakers praised the move as a helpful step, but noted that six months later only a few of the coordinators are in place and dealing with patients.
Researchers from the Rand Corporation told the committee that about 19 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have shown signs of traumatic brain injury, but more than half of those — about 173,000 — have not undergone any intensive examination from Defense or VA medical personnel.
Filner said those figures show neither department has responded quickly enough to servicemembers’ growing health problems.
"There are thousands and thousands of young men and women still not getting help," he said.