Akaka calls on VA to restructure itself
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs must restructure itself to handle injury claims quicker and respond to the "invisible wounds" suffered by a new generation of soldiers returning from wars.
Akaka, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, called on Congress last week to dedicate more resources to patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
"Because of a huge increase in claims for services and benefits, there will be a need to restructure Veterans Affairs to meet those needs," Akaka told the Associated Press in his Hawaii office, where he is working while the Senate is in a week-long recess. "One of these areas is under the category of invisible wounds from the war."
To help mentally troubled troops, the veterans department announced plans last month to hire 100 new patient advocates to meet with troops returning from Iraq and review their conditions.
Akaka is seeking increases of $300 million for treatment of traumatic brain injuries and $693 million for mental health programs over the Bush administration's proposals.
Treatment of all war veterans has declined in recent years because the strain of the war in Iraq has created a backlog of 400,000 claims, and it now takes 175 days to process a claim for benefits, Akaka said. He wants to increase service so that no more than 250,000 claims are in the pipeline at once.
"These conflicts and wars have engaged our military personnel. We are stressed," Akaka said. "This stress is being borne by the troops, and it's showing up in health care."
Akaka cited the case of Iraq war veteran Jonathan Schulze, whose family claims he told Veterans Affairs he was contemplating suicide but was turned away by two VA hospitals in Minnesota. Akaka has requested a probe into the incident, and its results will be shared with Congress.
Veterans Affairs' staff should become more receptive to the conditions of soldiers and process their requests faster, he said.
These changes should come about through increased funding from Congress and institutional policy changes rather than new laws, Akaka said.
"I'd like to see Veterans Affairs do it themselves rather than doing it by law," Akaka said.
In a wide-ranging interview, he pointed out several other areas he's working on in the Senate:
» Benefits for Filipino veterans of World War II, which could cost $1 billion;
» Passage of a new native Hawaiian recognition law, known as the Akaka bill, which was reintroduced in January and is pending before the Indian Affairs Committee;
» A joint hearing scheduled for Thursday with the Armed Services Committee on compensation and health care transition for soldiers.