Friday, August 08, 2008

VA Official: Political Changes Won't Sideline Progress in Wounded Warrior Transition

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

Aug. 8, 2008 - Strides made or under way to improve care for wounded warriors transitioning from Defense Department care to the Veterans Affairs system won't be disrupted by upcoming changes in both departments'
leadership, the No. 2 VA official said. Gordon H. Mansfield, deputy secretary of veterans affairs, said he's confident whichever candidate wins the November elections will build on successes made to provide the best support possible for wounded troops and veterans.

Mansfield spoke with American Forces Press Service during the 28th National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which wrapped up last week in Omaha, Neb.

Citing closer DoD-VA cooperation and collaboration than ever before, Mansfield said he expects the momentum to continue as new initiatives take shape.

DoD and VA are in the process of implementing more than 400 recommendations of five major studies. The commissions and task forces were formed to examine servicemembers' and veterans' health care after a February 2007 Washington Post series shed light on administrative shortfalls at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

A year and a half later, Mansfield said he believes both departments are on the right track, building on efforts dating back to 2002 and paving the way to a more seamless transition between their two systems.

Senior non-political staff members at both departments are working to ensure these and other initiatives continue without interruption as the political changeover takes place, he said.

Meanwhile, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has started attending meetings of the joint senior oversight committee designed to improve the two departments' cooperation. Mansfield and Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England co-chair the committee, which includes all service secretaries and meets frequently to review progress and eliminate any roadblocks.

Mansfield said he and England have established "a very positive and open and cooperative effort" that is bearing fruit.

In a joint prepared statement submitted to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in April, the two outlined specific improvements in their two departments' cooperation. "Specifically, we have endeavored to improve the disability evaluation system, established the Federal Recovery Coordination Program, improved data sharing between the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, developed housing facility-inspection standards, and improved delivery of pay and benefits," they said.

Mansfield called fixes to the disability-evaluation process, including one in which both DoD and VA would use a single physical exam and give a single disability rating, one of the biggest steps forward. The process, he said, will reduce delays and uncertainty for transitioning veterans.

A pilot program under way at three major medical hospitals in the Washington, D.C., area is testing the concept, which would eliminate the often confusing elements of the two disability processes. Its goal is to cut by half the time it takes to transition a wounded troop to veteran status and to receive VA benefits and compensation.

The pilot is proving so successful that, Mansfield said, other regions are being eyed as additional test beds. "We have laid the groundwork, and now we are getting ready to choose other regions and to move forward from there," he said.

In addition, case management has improved dramatically, with VA staff members posted in military medical centers to assess patients' needs before they transfer to a VA facility.

"VA people are in military treatment facilities to an extent they have never been in the past, so we can pick up these people and know who they are and what their needs are and what their families' needs are before they wind up in the VA," Mansfield said. "That way, we can work on the transfer to anticipate the needs and make the necessary arrangements for them."

The two departments signed a partnership agreement in October that put 10 federal recovery coordinators in place to manage the care of severely injured servicemembers and their families. These coordinators are based at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md.; Brooke Army Medical Center, in San Antonio; and Naval Medical Center San Diego.

The coordinators are responsible for managing the needs of servicemembers as they move through the recovery and rehabilitation process and back to their communities.

In addition to caring for newly wounded veterans, the coordinators are beginning to pick up the cases of veterans processed through the system before the federal recovery-coordinator program started. "We have to do a little more work there," Mansfield said. "We're in the first phase of this effort, but we're taking the lessons learned from it and going into the second phase."

Mansfield cited steps toward improving the sharing of medical information between the two departments to develop a seamless health information system. DoD and VA are sharing more electronic health information through secure networks than ever before. For transitioning servicemembers, this means less hassle and fewer delays as they enter the VA system and begin receiving care and benefits, he said.

The VA is committed to ensuring all 7.8 million veterans eligible for care continue to receive the best-quality support they deserve, Mansfield said. "We need to do it accurately, kindly and get them what they need," he said. "So the closer we work with DoD, the easier it is going to be, once they cross the line [from DoD into VA], for us to be prepared to serve them."

National Guard Supporters Sample Leapfest Adventure

By Army Master Sgt. Bob Haskell
Special to American Forces Press Service

Aug. 8, 2008 - No, they did not jump out of a perfectly good helicopter. But 16 civilians involved with
Rhode Island's Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve program did get an idea of what an international group of military paratroopers would experience during Leapfest 2008 two days before the 26th annual international competition takes place here tomorrow.

The civilians, including an assistant U.S. attorney, a U.S. Naval War College professor, and the owner of a North Kingston pest control business, were flown aboard an Army National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter over the Rhode Island countryside on that heavily overcast Thursday morning.

They saw for themselves the terrain the airborne soldiers would glimpse during the couple of minutes it would take them to parachute onto a landing zone beside the University of Rhode Island after jumping out of larger helicopters at 1,500 feet.

"We had a good mix of educators, public officials and small-business people who support our National Guard and reserve troops," said Donna Callahan, executive director for Rhode Island's Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve committee. "We wanted to give them an idea of what Leapfest, which is hosted by the Rhode Island Guard, is all about."

ESGR officials frequently escort civilian employers or supervisors for National Guardmembers and reservists to events such as Leapfest to give them an idea of what citizen-servicemembers do when they are in uniform and away from their jobs. It is one way that ESGR, whose national committee is based in Arlington, Va., attempts to avoid conflicts arising from employees' military commitments.

Ironically, the ESGR participants in Rhode Island were the only ones to get off the ground that day. The paratroopers from 11 countries were grounded by rain clouds that were too low to safely make the friendship jumps that were also intended to familiarize the foreign troops with the equipment used for the competition, explained Air National Guard Lt. Col. Denis Riel, the Rhode Island National Guard's state spokesman.

"I got interested in ESGR because First Lieutenant Kate Auxier, in the Army National Guard, used to work for me," explained Tom Alarie, manager of a graduate-level population studies and training program at Brown University in Providence.

"I wanted to see this because we teach National Guard and reserve officers at the Naval War College in Newport," said Jeffrey Norwitz, a professor of national security decision making. "We have always had a good relationship with the National Guard and Reserve."