Witness Testimony of Hon. Bob Dole, President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors, Co-Chair, (Former United States Senator from the State of Kansas)
- Good morning Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee. It is a pleasure to appear before you today, along with my fellow Co-Chair Donna Shalala.
- We look forward to working with you to support this nation’s goal of assuring that our service men and woman receive the benefits and services they deserve.
- It has been an honor to serve on this Commission, especially with Secretary Shalala. I have said it before and I will say it here today, she’s been a “Triple A” co-chair. She has boundless energy and kept us going as we tackled this important challenge. It has been a great experience to work with her and our fellow commissioners.
- Our recommendations were guided by the Commission chaired by General Omar Bradley in 1956, which said: “Our philosophy of veterans’ benefits must be modernized and the whole structure of traditional veterans’ programs brought up to date.”
- Problems accompany change -- wars change, people change, techniques change, injuries change, and we need to keep our military and veterans healthcare system up-to-date. I find it remarkable that 50 years later we are finding so much of what General Bradley had recommended is still relevant today.
- Secretary Shalala has outlined our recommendations and some of the action steps to be taken by Congress. I will now review the remaining 3 action steps that require legislation and are part of our call for a complete restructuring of the disability and compensation systems.
- In our next action step, we call on Congress to revise the DoD and VA disability systems. Right now each of these Departments assesses each injured service member’s disability level, based on different objectives. Each assessment leads to a rating of the amount of disability. The two systems often disagree, they take way too long, and the process is way too confusing.
- There are differences in ratings depending on which military service determines the DoD rating and which VA regional office determines the VA rating. In our national survey of injured service members, less than half understood the DoD’s disability evaluation process. And, only 42 percent of retired or separated service members who had filed a VA claim understood the VA process.
- We recommend that DoD retain authority to determine fitness to serve. Service members whose health makes them unfit for duty would be separated from the military. DoD would provide them a lifetime annuity payment based on their rank and years of military service.
- We believe that only one physical exam should be performed, rather than the two required now—one by each Department--and it should be performed by the DoD. The VA should assume all responsibility for establishing the disability rating based on that physical and for providing all disability compensation.
- This new structure makes timely, reliable, transparent, and accountable changes in both systems.
- Under this action item, DoD and VA can focus on what they do best--determining fitness standards and the health and readiness of the military workforce. The VA can focus on providing care and support for injured veterans, including providing education and training early in the rehabilitation process. It is a much simpler system that better supports the needs of those transitioning between active duty and veteran status.
- In our fifth action step, we recommend health care coverage for service members who are found unfit because of conditions that were acquired in combat, supporting combat, or preparing for combat. Congress should authorize comprehensive lifetime health care coverage and pharmacy benefits for those services members and their families through DoD’s TRICARE program.
- We believe this action item would help these individuals find employment that fits their needs without worrying whether the job provides adequate family health care coverage.
- And, in our final action step, we would like Congress to clarify the objectives for the VA disability payment system by revising the three types of payments currently provided to many veterans. The primary objective should be to return disabled veterans to normal activities, insofar as possible, and as quickly as possible, by focusing on education, training, and employment. We recommend changing the existing disability compensation payments for injured service members to include three components: transition support, earnings loss, and quality of life.
- “Transition Payments” are temporary payments to help with expenses as disabled veterans integrate into civilian life. Veterans should receive either three months of base pay, if they are returning to their community and not participating in further rehabilitation; or an amount to cover living expenses for up to four years while they are participating in education or work training programs.
- “Earnings Loss Payments” make up for any lower earning capacity remaining after transition and after training. Initial evaluation of the remaining work-related disability should occur when training ends. Earnings loss payments should be credited as Social Security earnings and would end when the veteran retires and claims Social Security benefits.
- And “Quality of Life Payments,” which should be based on a more modern concept of disability that takes into account an injury’s impact on an individual’s total quality of life—independent of the ability to work.
- The disability status of veterans should be reevaluated every three years and compensation adjusted, as necessary.
- By overhauling the DoD and VA disability systems, Congress will make the systems less confusing, eliminate payment inequalities, and provide a solid base and incentives for injured veterans to return to productive life.
- I really believe, and I can say this having voted on a lot of Military and Veterans bills, having met on other commissions, having been a service officer in my younger years, and having worked hard to help Veterans in the Legion and the VFW, that these are really bold action steps. They will do justice for our brave service members fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. I also believe these actions, which support our six recommendations, will benefit past and future generations of American service members.
- You know, in Vietnam 5/8 seriously injured service members survived; today 7/8 survive – many with injuries that in World War II would have been fatal. Over 1.5 million service members have been deployed in the Global War on Terror. At the time of our report, 37,851 had been evacuated from Iraq or Afghanistan for illness or injury – 23,270 of these individuals were treated and returned to duty within 72 hours. We believe that the number of seriously injured is small – on the order of 3,000, based on the number who have received traumatic service members’ group life insurance (TSGLI).
- Both of us are grateful that Congress is determined to improve the system of care for America’s injured service members and their families. We call upon you to move quickly and implement the actions we have discussed today. To make the significant improvements we recommend requires a sense of urgency and strong leadership.
- Congress plays a critical role in helping to change the way our military and veterans healthcare systems work. Together, we are truly creating a system that serves our bravest men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.
- In closing, Mr. Chairman, let me emphasize again that our report is doable and necessary. We ask that you draft legislation to implement the six action items that Secretary Shalala and I have just discussed.