Army Officer: Long-Term Morale a Concern

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Army’s new acting surgeon general said Tuesday she is concerned about long-term morale because the military lacks money to hire enough nurses and mental health specialists to treat thousands of troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“When the original plans were made, we did not take into consideration we could be in a long war,” said Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock. She became surgeon general earlier this month after Kevin Kiley was forced to resign in a scandal over poor treatment of war-wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

“We have not been able to do the hiring,” Pollock told a House Armed Services subcommittee.

She testified at the first of two congressional hearings Tuesday on veterans care during which lawmakers expressed impatience with the Bush administration’s efforts. They said years of communication gaps between the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments have yet to be fixed.

Testimony from officials from the two departments highlighted the difficulties that lie ahead for the Bush administration in fixing problems following reports of shoddy outpatient treatment and bureaucratic delays at Walter Reed, one of the Army’s premier facilities for treating the injured.

Since the disclosures last month, three high-level Pentagon officials have been forced to step down. Some Democrats also have questioned whether VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, a former Republican National Committee chairman, is up to the job of revitalizing the veterans care system.

Bush has appointed a presidential commission to study the problems and a slew of reviews are under way by the Pentagon, VA and several congressional committees. But troops and veterans say many of the issues are well known and have long been in need of response.

Among the complaints are the difficulties troops and veterans have in navigating the health care system, including moving from military hospitals to the VA’s vast network of 1,400 clinics and treatment facilities, which provide supplementary care and rehabilitation to 5.8 million veterans.

Speaking before a Senate panel, Michael Kussman, executive-in-charge of the Veterans Health Administration and Ellen Embrey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, defended their efforts to improve coordination that would speed health care to injured troops and veterans.

Embrey said the departments had taken steps to strengthen joint committees and place each other’s personnel in Pentagon and VA-run facilities.

That drew an angry response from Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who noted that the Government Accountability Office earlier this month reported the two departments still fail to share health records electronically despite years of warnings and recommendations.

“We’re now in the fifth year of this armed conflict,” said Burr, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “At what point do we actually look at what’s going on and implement changes? How many real-life experiences do we have to listen to?”

Acknowledging that the VA and Pentagon have the technology to share records but don’t always do so, Embrey responded, “That’s a good question.”

She added that the departments have since begun looking at finding ways to share inpatient records. “I think we have the institutional structures in place, but at the individual level, some things don’t happen.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said a first step is to provide the VA and Pentagon the money they need to treat problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. A Senate bill that provides $122 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan includes millions to build polytrauma centers and hire new claims processors.

“I’ve just about had it with administration officials who assure us everything is being taken care of,” Murray said. “I know you work hard, but we are going to judge you by the results you get for our veterans, and we’re going to hold you accountable.”

But Sen. Larry Craig, the Senate panel’s top Republican, argued that overall the military health system works well and noted that the VA system typically outranks the private sector in customer satisfaction.

“I am hopeful that the president’s new interagency task force on returning global war on terror heroes will help us determine what changes – legislative or otherwise – need to be made,” he said.

That task force, headed by Nicholson and made up of Cabinet secretaries from Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services and other agencies, is expected to report by late April.

Separately, a nine-member presidential commission chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, a Democrat, to improve veterans care is scheduled to begin work in earnest next month and has a June 30 deadline.

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