House passes bill to improve medical care for troops, vets

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Moved by reports of shoddy outpatient conditions and tangled bureaucracy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other facilities, House lawmakers lined up yesterday to unanimously support a bill that promises to improve medical care for the nation's service members and veterans.

The bipartisan measure, known as the Wounded Warriors Assistance Act, rocketed through the House of Representatives after its introduction two weeks ago. Of the 435 House members, 426 were on hand to support the bill, with some scrambling at the last minute to be counted in support of the troops.


Among its provisions, the bill would set up a toll-free hot line to handle patient complaints, streamline the transition in care from the Department of Defense to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and limit the number of patients assigned to case managers and other personnel shepherding service members through the recovery process.

"The key is to have a system that is customer-friendly to our wounded service members and their families," said Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. "We need to push back the bureaucracy and treat all these people like VIPs."


In addition, the measure would improve training for health care providers, case managers and patient advocates in identifying mental health problems. It also would set up a system of independent advocates for service members undergoing medical reviews to determine their fitness for duty.

Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee and the bill's chief sponsor, called the legislation a "first step" and said his committee would look into other reforms that might be needed.

Democratic Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Claire McCaskill of Missouri have introduced similar legislation in the Senate. Some of that bill's provisions, including funding for additional case workers and mental health experts, are expected to be added to a supplementary spending bill being considered this week.

Members of the House Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees introduced the legislation March 15 after a series of reports in The Washington Post about substandard outpatient conditions at Walter Reed, the nation's premier military hospital. In the scandal's aftermath, the secretary of the Army and two generals lost their jobs and several commissions were set up to examine military health care.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and news reports have highlighted concerns at facilities for veterans, which are under the separate jurisdiction of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Both the military and veterans health systems are struggling to cope with the surge of wounded personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan at unprecedented survival rates but with more severe injuries than in wars past.

"The recent scandal at Walter Reed has shed a very disturbing light on the failures of our government to live up to their responsibilities to our troops," said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, a California Democrat. "These failures are much broader than one hospital in one part of the country. Congress needed to pass this legislation today to right a very shameful wrong."

Adam Schreck writes for The Los Angeles Times.