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WASHINGTON — Congress must keep pressure on Veterans Affairs and Defense Department officials in order to overhaul the outdated disability claims system, veterans groups told lawmakers on Thursday.

“We’re very concerned that many of these recommendations will just be put on a shelf to collect dust,” said Todd Bowers, director of government affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “You’ve got the rifle, you’ve got the ammunition. Squeeze the trigger.”

In a hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs panel, members of the Congressional commission charged with examining the system said officials still don’t have up-to-date criteria for evaluating traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a host of other mental health issues.

“We found 47 percent of codes have been revised since 1990 but 35 percent have not been revised since 1945,” said retired Lt. Gen. James Scott, chairman of the veterans disability benefit commission.

“We’ve just been paying people with PTSD to go away. We haven’t made adequate efforts in the past to actually treat it.”

The commission was one of several formed following the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal last year, and issued a 113-recommendation report last October.

Scott and other critics acknowledged that since then, veterans and military officials have made some improvements; VA leaders have begun a review of the disability ratings with an eye towards PTSD, and a pilot program to simplify the veterans’ application process was launched in December.

And Scott said he believes a full overhaul of the disability ratings could be completed within five years, getting the system prepared for the increasing number of combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

But they added that without monitoring and pressure from lawmakers, progress could stall.

Bowers said Congress must establish an executive oversight group to guide an overhaul of the massive health system, calling it the most important of the commission’s recommendations.

Senators at the hearing did not commit to that, but said the issue should be a primary focus for all lawmakers.

“These wounded warriors rightfully expect their injuries should not prevent them from leading productive lives,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member of the committee. “We need to create a system for today’s veterans and not leave them with a system that was outdated before they were even born.”


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