WASHINGTON, April 24 (Reuters) – President George W. Bush said on Tuesday he was ordering implementation of a government-wide “action plan” to improve health care and related services for U.S. troops and returning veterans.
The plan was developed by Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson and members of the Interagency Task Force on Returning Global War on Terror Heroes, Bush said in a statement released late on Tuesday by the White House.
“The brave men and women who have volunteered to protect and defend our country deserve to receive the highest level of support from our grateful nation,” the statement said.
“The Task Force has proposed specific recommendations to immediately begin addressing the problems and gaps in services that were identified across the veterans and military healthcare systems.
“These recommendations include directing the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop a joint process for disability determination.”
Disability determinations are used to establish levels of disability for retirement and Veterans Affairs compensation.
“I commend the work of the Task Force, welcome its recommendations, and have directed Secretary Nicholson to work with all agencies involved … and to report back to me within 45 days on how these measures are being implemented.”
In March, President Bush apologized to wounded U.S. troops who endured dilapidated conditions and bureaucratic delays at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the flagship military hospital in Washington. The Army’s top civilian leader and other officials were ousted over the revelations.
There have also been questions about military mental health care. The General Accountability Office reported last year that just 22 percent of U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who showed signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were referred by the Pentagon for mental health evaluations.
Nine U.S. senators asked the GAO this month to look into how the Defense Department treats troops returning from Iraq or Afghanistan with mental health problems.
“We have … heard of cases in which service members with PTSD are diagnosed as having ‘personality disorders’ that the Army considers ‘pre-existing,’ thus depriving otherwise eligible combat veterans of disability benefits and much-needed mental health care,” the Senators wrote in the GAO request.
(Additional reporting by Will Dunham)