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Panel wants better care for vets

Group recommends help for families, better access to medical records and better treatment for brain injuries.

President Bush, center, jogs Wednesday with wounded veterans Army Sgt. Neil Duncan, left, and Army Spc. Max Ramsey on the South Lawn at the White House. Duncan lost both legs in Afghanistan and Ramsey lost his leg in Iraq.

AP photo

WASHINGTON — A presidential commission on Wednesday urged broad changes to veterans’ care that would boost benefits for family members helping the wounded, establish an easy-to-use Web site for medical records and overhaul the way disability pay is awarded.

The nine-member panel, led by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Donna Shalala, health and human services secretary during the Clinton administration, also recommended stronger partnerships between the Pentagon and the private sector to boost treatment for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A 29-page report was presented to President Bush in the Oval Office, just after the Senate addressed some of the issues Wednesday morning by passing sweeping legislation to expand brain screenings, reduce red tape and boost military pay.

“Gone are the countless calls for appointments,” said Shalala, who said the proposals would provide more customized, personalized care to injured Iraq war veterans. “Gone are the days of telling the same thing to doctors over and over again.”

Bush praised the proposals as interesting, but White House Press Secretary Tony Snow later cautioned not to expect action right away. Snow said the panel’s ideas would likely be integrated with other ongoing efforts to improve health care and overall treatment of returning soldiers.

About six of the 35 proposals require legislation, while the rest call for action primarily by the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs. The expected price tag for the whole package was about $500 million each year, with added costs that could push it to $1 billion in later years.

Among the recommendations was an indirect rebuke of the VA — a call for Congress to “enable all veterans who have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq who need post-traumatic stress disorder care to receive it from the VA.”

Only recently, the VA has taken steps to add mental health counselors and 24-hour suicide prevention services at all facilities, after high-profile incidents of veterans committing suicide. In the past, the VA had failed to use all the money for mental health that was allotted to it.

The expected price tag was about $500 million each year, with added costs that could push it to $1 billion in later years.

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