Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Veterans Administration Not Prepared for Number of Veterans Needing Medical Care

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One year ago, ABC News anchorman Bob Woodruff suffered a near-fatal head injury when he was hit by an IED (improvised explosive device) while riding with an Iraqi army unit. In "Iraq and Back," which aired Tuesday evening, Woodruff uses that experience to frame a report about the devastating consequences for military personnel and their families created by an unprepared and overburdened Veterans Administration.

The head of the VA, Jim Nicholson, came off very badly in Woodruff's documentary: he was uninformed (or, more likely, disingenuous) about the extent of the crisis, and when Woodruff prodded him to explain the disconnect between the rosy picture he was painting and the reality Woodruff had seen and experienced, Nicholson's response was "incredibly callous":

Given the recent focus on troops wounded in Iraq, it was encouraging to see ABC’s Bob Woodruff explore the burdens on military families on a news special last night. It was discouraging, however, to hear Jim Nicholson, the secretary of the Veterans Administration, downplay the problem.

While the Department of Defense reports that there have been about 23,000 nonfatal battlefield casualties in Iraq, Woodruff reported — through an internal VA document — that more than 200,000 veterans have sought medical care for various ailments.

When Woodruff confronted VA Secretary Jim Nicholson about the disparity in the administration’s figures, Nicholson responded that Americans are probably “surprised to know that 200,000 come to the VA for some kind of medical treatment. That’s probably more than they think.” But Nicholson quickly downplayed the high numbers, claiming a lot of veterans simply “come in for dental problems.”

First, this is incredibly callous. Woodruff was pointing to an important discrepancy. Instead of offering an explanation, Nicholson characterized the problem as unimportant.

Second, Nicholson, who really ought to know better given his position as the VA Secretary, was completely wrong on the facts.

Think Progress has the video clip of Nicholson's dismissive response.

And he's not the only high-ranking Bush administration official who is clueless about the crisis in the VA. You know there's a problem when senior Pentagon officials have to be informed by Harvard professors that there is a crisis:

Last month, Harvard professor Linda Bilmes presented a paper at a meeting of social scientists about the cost of treating injured soldiers. She reported that 50,000 American troops had been wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A few days later she got a call from a senior Pentagon official.

"The assistant secretary for Health of the DOD phoned me up asked me where I had found the numbers, and I faxed him his own Web site and that was the last I heard from them," Bilmes says.

Now both the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs have changed the number of wounded on their Web sites.

If you missed Woodruff's report, you can still catch it, over here (h/t Hal Boedeker at the Orlando Sentinel).

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