DoD Works With VA to Streamline Transition for Wounded Troops
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 13, 2007 Combat-wounded troops have suffered enough from their injuries and shouldn’t have to suffer more because of bureaucratic red tape, Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson said.
Nicholson told American Forces Press Service he’s encouraged by a new cooperative spirit he’s seeing between the Defense Department and VA as they work to improve wounded troops’ transition between the two departments.
“The trends are very positive,” Nicholson said. “There is a far more attenuated attitude toward collaboration.”
The two agencies have been looking at ways to make wounded troops’ transition as smooth as possible, but the effort has accelerated since problems revealed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here focused more attention on support for wounded warriors.
“The events out at Walter Reed were unfortunate, but you know, out of a lot of bad can come a lot of good,” Nicholson said. “And I think that is happening now.”
President Bush directed Nicholson to establish the Interagency Task Force on Returning Global War on Terror Heroes to come up with ways the federal agencies can improve their support for wounded troops.
Talking with veterans at VA medical facilities, Nicholson said he’s struck that they’re “uniformly complimentary” of the health care they receive.
“But one of the things that drives them nuts is the bureaucracy and the red tape and the anxiety that comes, … the unknowing, and how to do this, and where to go for that,” he said. “And they shouldn’t have to worry about that.”
Nicholson said his task force is building on efforts already under way to streamline the transition process between DoD and VA.
“Our emphasis has always been on treatment, but process is important, too,” he said. “We are looking … at (the) process to see what the overlaps are. We’re looking to see what redundancies there are and what we can cut out to make it easier for the veteran. And I’m optimistic there are some things we can do.”
Daniel Cooper, VA’s undersecretary for benefits, described initiatives under way during testimony yesterday before the Senate Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees:
-- Veterans Health Administration social workers and Veterans Benefits Administration counselors are assigned to 10 military treatment facilities, including Walter Reed. They help ensure wounded troops transitioning to VA medical facilities and the VA benefits system understand what’s available for them and help them apply for it.
-- Two outreach coordinators regularly visit Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center, at Bethesda, Md., to encourage wounded troops and their families to participate in VA-sponsored special events and help ease their transition.
-- A VA-certified rehabilitation registered nurse is assigned to Walter Reed to help wounded troops and their families transition to care though VA polytrauma rehabilitation centers.
-- All VA regional offices maintain contact with military hospitals and VA medical centers in their jurisdictions to ensure prompt notification of the arrival, transfer and discharge of seriously wounded troops. Affected troops also receive pertinent VA contact information.
-- Claims from servicemembers seriously disabled in Iraq or Afghanistan are case managed to ensure seamless and expeditious processing. Case managers track the claims and maintain a case history on each injured veteran throughout the claims process.
-- VA is hiring 100 new transition patient advocates to serve as ombudsmen for severely injured servicemembers and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. These advocates, most veterans of the global war on terror themselves, will help wounded troops and their families throughout the transition process.
-- Both VA and DoD are making progress in developing interoperable health technologies. Two key efforts are advances in the way electronic medical records are transferred between the two agencies and better information sharing before patients transfer to VA polytrauma centers for care.
-- The two departments have agreed to begin working this year on a new DoD/VA joint electronic health records interoperability plan. The goal is to come up with a common inpatient electronic health record.
-- VA will soon launch the Veterans Tracking Application, a system that will enable it to track wounded troops from the battlefield through Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, in Germany, to stateside military hospitals and on to the VA medical facility. VETA is a modified version of DoD’s Joint Patient Tracking Application.
-- The departments are working to expand VA access to DoD inpatient records, particularly for severely wounded troops being transferred to VA care. An early version of this capability is already up and running in Washington state, where Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis and the VA Puget Sound Health Care System exchange inpatient discharge summaries. Tripler Army Medical Center, in Honolulu; Womack Army Medical Center, at Fort Bragg, N.C.; and Brooke Army medical Center, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, have also introduced this capability.
Cooper told the senators the VA hopes to continue building on this cooperation. “The VA has worked hard to improve the transition process for our deserving servicemen and -women,” Nicholson said. “Yet we are not satisfied that we have achieved all that is possible or can be done.”