WASHINGTON – President Bush pushed Congress on Tuesday to help modernize the government's inefficient system that cares for wounded veterans of war.
The president said his administration had implemented most recommendations made in July by the bipartisan Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors, and now it was Congress' turn to finish the job.
Bush sent legislation to Capitol Hill for implementing those recommendations that require legislative action.
"Medical advances have enabled battlefield medics and hospitals to provide our wounded warriors with care that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago," Bush said, standing in the Rose Garden with wounded troops, including two that rode in on Segways.
"Yet our system for managing this care has fallen behind. It's an old system. It's an antiquated system. It's an outdated system that needs to be changed."
Bush set up the commission after shoddy outpatient treatment was uncovered in February at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington that prompted public outcry for improvements.
Bush said the legislation will streamline the way disabilities are evaluated and compensation is awarded to injured service members.
"Right now the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs both have their own systems for making these determinations," Bush said. "The commission found that this process is difficult to navigate and confusing for service members and their families."
He said the legislation also proposes to emphasize rehabilitation and retraining; improve treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder; provide new support and financial incentives for therapy and education; and strengthen support for families during the recovery process.
Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration, jointly led the nine-member presidential commission. In an op-ed published Tuesday in The Washington Post, they expressed concern that their commission's recommendations were being swept up "into a decades-long battle" to reform the entire disability system for all service members.
At the White House, Dole acknowledged that some people claim the commission should have worked to reform the whole system. But he said the commission's charge from the president was to limit its review to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It is time to decide — do we reform the current military and veterans' disability evaluation and compensation systems or limp along, playing Band-Aids over existing flaws?" the op-ed asked.
Shalala placed the issue squarely in lawmakers' hands.
"The message has to get out," Shalala said. "Everyone that's frustrated, tell your member of Congress to get this legislation passed."
Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he was pleased that the recommendations were being implemented, but said two urgent issues still need to be addressed. He said the VA appropriations budget has not yet been approved by Congress and the president needs to pick a successor for former VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, who stepped down Oct. 1.