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Task force poses ways to improve care at VA

WASHINGTON -- Injured soldiers and veterans grappling with backlogs and red tape will now fill out less paperwork, get more screenings for brain injury, and go through an improved disability claims system, a presidential task force said yesterday.

Responding to criticism about poor treatment of wounded soldiers, the interagency task force headed by Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson released its report and recommendations for immediately improving veterans' care.

Acknowledging that errors have been made, the panel found that government procedures are unwieldy, with unacceptable gaps as service members and veterans move from military hospitals to the VA's vast network of 1,400 hospitals and clinics.

"The federal government must be responsive and efficient in delivering our benefits and services to these heroes," Nicholson said in announcing the recommendations at the National Press Club. "They should not have to fight bureaucratic red tape for benefits earned by their courageous service."

"We are not perfect," he added. "We recognize that this huge bureaucracy needs a major transformation."

Pointing to poor coordination between the VA and the Pentagon, the recommendations call for a joint electronic case management system that will allow officials to share files and track patients much like packages en route to a destination.

Case managers will be added to help guide troops and their families through the process, and all veterans receiving care in VA facilities will be tested for mild to moderate brain injury, an often unseen ailment that could emerge months after service has been completed.

Attributing backlogs to "improved outreach," Nicholson said he had requested more money to hire additional staff to help cut the delay in processing benefit claims from the current average of 177 days to 125.

In addition, the task force, which includes Cabinet secretaries and officials at eight government agencies, urged the creation of a joint disability-claims process handled by the Pentagon and VA to speed delivery of benefits and reduce disparities in the system.

Critics have contended that the Army consistently rates injured soldiers lower than the other armed services and VA. One congressional commission has suggested that the Army might be doing so to avoid paying higher disability benefits.

Among the other recommendations:

Expedite housing claims and other services for returning service members from Iraq and Afghanistan to reduce growing instances where they are forced to live on the streets.

Expand eligibility of small - business loans to provide more opportunities for veterans to obtain self-employment. The Labor Department will also work with veterans as they are recovering from injury to ease their transition to civilian life.

Improve outreach with additional newsletters and job fairs to educate service members and veterans of benefits and services.

Nicholson presented the recommendations to President Bush on Monday. The task force, charged with devising immediate solutions that would not require additional funding or new legislation, will meet again in 45 days .

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