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Panel Delivers Report on Military Health System


From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.



And I'm Alex Cohen.

Coming up, we're off to a summer camp for kids whose parents are serving in Iraq.

CHADWICK: First, a report on veterans wounded in war and trying to recover back home. President Bush heard today from a commission investigating failures in the government's care for them. Here's Mr. Bush.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I asked these two distinguished citizens to lead an extensive search and - about how best for this government to respond. We owe a wounded solider the very best care and the very best benefits and the very easiest to understand system. And so they took a very interesting approach in that that they took the perspective from the patient.

CHADWICK: The president was referring the to the co-chairs of the commission that he appointed a couple of months ago, a few months ago after news reports about outpatients at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. The reports, first in the Washington Post, were shocking - shoddy treatment, bureaucratic delays, arrogance, and disregard toward those trying to recover from their war injuries.


Joining us from the White House, NPR's David Greene.

David, what is in this report? Give us the highlights, can you?

DAVID GREENE: Sure. Well, this report, Alex, came from the commissioners who led this group: Bob Dole, who was a presidential candidate, long-time Republican senator, and also World War II veteran; and Donna Shalala, who was President Clinton's health and human services secretary. And they've been releasing the report as today has been going on, and it's pretty sweeping.

They say that this is not patchwork, that they are calling for fundamental change and a lot of it is dealing with the red tape and bureaucratic entanglements that wounded soldiers had to face when they came home. They have to deal with both the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

So if one agency is enough red tape, they get two when they come home from fighting. And the commission is calling for really to delineate clearly who does what. The Pentagon decides whether someone is fit for duty or not, and if they are not, they will pay for a person's years of service. The Department of Veterans Affairs will determine their level of disability and what sort of benefits they get.

And the commission said they really want to make it one one-stop and very patient-focused. So a patient when they come back knows exactly where to go, exactly where to get care; their new Web site's set up. And one other thing of note that the Department of Veterans Affairs, if the commission gets its way, will do a lot to treat post-traumatic stress disorders. And that's something that a lot of veterans groups have said really not enough attention is being paid to it.

CHADWICK: So do they have specific proposals how all this is going to be done? How do you get the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense to work together on this in a way that would work better for the veterans?

GREENE: They do and they have a lot of recommendations. But they also say that it's going to take strong leadership. They say that this is a system that's been too complex, it's been rule-bound, and that it's going to take a lot of leadership on the part of the White House and Congress. But the commission made very clear that it wasn't trying to point blame, which is something that I think a lot of veterans groups were hoping to see, for people who - if there have been failings, that they would be held to account.

CHADWICK: We heard something from the president earlier today, right after his private briefing on the report. Has he said anything more on it?

GREENE: He hasn't, and the White House, Alex, has been really downplaying his direct involvement in the report, even though he appointed this commission. Mr. Bush did say that he liked the approach that Bob Dole and Donna Shalala took, putting themselves in the position of a soldier coming home to see what sorts of frustrations there are. But very little from the president so far, and that's the big question. Will the president make this a big issue and take a very public role, or will he make some changes quietly?

CHADWICK: Well, did you see anything in the atmosphere of his statement this morning?

GREENE: It was very brief. It was in the Oval Office. One interesting moment. One of the reporters actually covering the event was ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff, who you might remember was badly injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq when he was there, and he's still recovering, he's back to work. The president recognized him and said he hopes that veterans are able to get the kind of care that Woodruff got, and that they can get back to work. And Woodruff clearly was back to work. He shouted a question to the president, asked if the government is going to move to help veterans. And Mr. Bush joked and said, you know, just because I recognized you, Bob, doesn't mean I'm actually going to answer your question.

CHADWICK: Well, I know that Congress is already talking about this action in the Senate today. But also on Capitol Hill, the House Judiciary Committee today voted to cite one current and one former White House official for contempt of Congress, this part of the investigation of firing of federal prosecutors. Reaction from the White House on that?

GREENE: Yeah. They're actually - they're really ramping up this fight. Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, and Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff, the vote in the judiciary committee to hold them in contempt of Congress. The White House saying it's pathetic. They're trying to paint this as Democrats are just trying to investigate and hold hearings, and Democrats saying, look, if White House officials are going to ignore our demands, we're going to say something about it.

CHADWICK: Okay. More to come. NPR's David Greene at the White House today.

David, thank you again.

GREENE: Always a pleasure, Alex. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.