When news broke that Bob Dole would be visiting on the invitation of University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala, it may have seemed that he was just the next speaker in a series of high-profile guests.
But the purpose of his visit to Jackson Memorial Hospital Monday with Shalala was much more serious.
The former Kansas senator’s unofficial tour comes as he and Shalala lead an investigation into the mismanagement of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. President George W. Bush established the Presidential Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors after The Washington Post exposed a slew of problems with the hospital system and U.S. military care.
He named the two as the commission’s co-chairs earlier this month in the hopes of ensuring that the Veteran’s Administration’s 1,400 medical facilities meet specific safety and health standards.
“I think in some ways the Walter Reed episode may have been a blessing in disguise because it was a wake-up call for all the VA hospitals and all the Department of Defense facilities,” Dole said during a press conference after he toured the Miami VA hospital. He and Shalala ended their tour at the Jackson Trauma Center.
The commission includes seven other members, ranging from injured war veterans to the wife of a wounded staff sergeant who suffered burns across 70 percent of his body. The hospital visits will be divided among each commission member.
The co-chairs believe that problems in military care facilities have surfaced after other wars, such as the Gulf War and World War II. The difference with Iraq and Afghanistan, Dole said, is the amount of returning wounded soldiers grossly outweighs the amount of hospitals prepared to provide treatment to war victims.
In previous wars, body armor and medical care in the war zone were not as advanced, so soldiers who were wounded in battle died.
In WWII, for every one soldier that died, two were wounded. In Vietnam and Korea, one soldier died for every three that were wounded. In Iraq, one soldier dies for every 16 wounded.
Both Dole and Shalala have years of experience dealing with care in veteran hospital facilities-Shalala as secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration and Dole as a senator who has visited veteran hospitals as well as being a veteran of WWII who he received wounds in Italy.
The two emphasized that the key to fixing the VA hospital issues is to talk to those who are currently in the system.
“We need to listen to the voices of the wounded veterans and their families and integrate that into the analysis we are doing of the system,” Shalala said. “It should be seamless from the time someone is wounded to their discharge or return to military life. There ought not to be gaps in their treatment, or the way in which they’re treated.”
Another issue the commission plans to address deals with the soldier’s life during rehabilitation. Soldiers currently receive $2,400 a month in disability compensation when they have a disability rating of 100 percent. Soldiers who do not qualify for full compensation thus need to find another source of income, such as a job-disabled or not.
“We need to make sure that when a veteran wants to return to the workforce, that we can find a job in the community for that veteran,” Shalala said.
Dole also commented on the necessity to address disability claims.
“We’re spending billions and billions to get these young men and women over there and if it takes a lot to get them back on their feet, that shouldn’t be an issue,” he said.
The commission plans to spend the next three months visiting hospitals around the country. The visits will conclude on June 30, but the commission members will be allowed a 30 day extension if necessary.
“I remember the president saying, ‘If there’s one veteran that’s not getting appropriate care, than we need to fix it,'” Dole said. “We’re not on any witch hunt here-we’re trying to find out what we can do to make the system better.”
Karyn Meshbane may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.