March 25, 2007

House Panel claims VA Not Doing Enough for Iraq Vets

Associated Press | March 14, 2007
WASHINGTON - The Veterans Affairs' system for handling disability claims is strained to its limit, and the Bush administration's current efforts to relieve backlogs won't be enough to serve veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, investigators said Tuesday.

In testimony to a House panel, the Government Accountability Office and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes detailed their study into the VA's claims system in light of growing demands created by wars. They found a system on the verge of crisis due to backlogs, cumbersome paperwork and ballooning costs.

The House hearing is the latest to review the quality of care for wounded troops returning from Iraq - from emergency medical care at military hospitals, to long-term rehabilitation at VA clinics and eventual transition to civilian life with VA disability payments.

According to their findings, the VA:

-Took between 127 to 177 days to process an initial claim and an average of 657 days to process an appeal, resulting in significant hardship to veterans. In contrast, the private sector industry takes about 89.5 days to process a claim.

-Had a claims backlog of roughly 600,000.

-Will see 638,000 new first-time claims in the next five years due to the Iraq war - 400,000 by the end of 2009 alone - creating added costs of between $70 billion and $150 billion.

-Maintained a system for determining a veteran's disability that was complex and applied inconsistently across regional centers. Results varied; for example, Salt Lake City took 99 days to process a claim, while Honolulu spent 237 days.

-Had antiquated technology for processing claims, such as unreliable old fax machines.

The findings drew fire from House members. Rep. John Hall, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance, floated the possibility that the Veterans Affairs Department should be merged into the Defense Department.
"When our Soldiers and military personnel return home and need help, they should get the assistance they have earned without delay," said Hall, D-N.Y.

Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn, the panel's top Republican, said the overstressed claims system was courting a "financial and potentially emotional disaster."

Bilmes, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who co-authored a paper on the war's economic costs with Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, described a failed system that could have been prevented after years of warnings. She urged simplifying the disability ratings system, reducing time VA staffers spend documenting disabilities, and conducting random audits instead.

"The veterans returning from Iraq are suffering from the same problem that has plagued many other aspects of the war, namely a failure to plan ahead," she said.
Responding, Ronald Aument, deputy under secretary for benefits at the VA, told the House panel that the department was working to shorten delays. The VA also was consolidating some processing operations, and planned to add 400 new employees by the end of June.

"Expediting the claims process is critical to assisting veterans in their transition from combat operations back to civilian life," Aument said.

The hearing follows disclosures of roach-infested conditions and shoddy outpatient care at Walter Reed Medical Center, one of the nation's premier military hospitals. Since the disclosures by the Washington Post, three high-level Pentagon officials have been forced to step down. President Bush has also appointed a commission led by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, a Democrat, to conduct a broad review on veteran and troop care.

"If anything the recent Walter Reed expose has taught us is that trying to treat and care for Soldiers and veterans on a limited budget and limited oversight only has one logical conclusion, poor care," said Patrick Campbell, legislative director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Daniel Bertoni, an acting director at the GAO, Congress' investigative arm, said the VA system has been riddled with problems for years. "After more than a decade of research, we have determined that federal disability programs are in urgent need of attention and transformation," he said.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said what was needed was to create specialized case workers known as "navigators" who could make sure Soldiers don't fall through the cracks after leaving military service and before they enter the VA system.

Menendez planned to introduce legislation Wednesday to create a pilot program with $25 million in grants over the next five years. The navigators would focus on helping new veterans who are members of the National Guard, women or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The Veteran Navigators, who will not be part of the government system, will be better able to advocate for veterans to make sure they are treated fairly," Menendez said.

January 28, 2007

Army Command Sgt. Maj. Marilyn L. Gabbard

Iowa soldier killed in helicopter crash in Iraq
By Henry C. Jackson, The Associated Press

JOHNSTON, Iowa — The first woman promoted to the rank of command sergeant major in the Iowa Army National Guard was among those killed when a Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Iraq, guard officials said Jan. 24.

Command Sgt. Maj. Marilyn L. Gabbard, 46, of Polk City, was a passenger on the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter when it crashed Jan. 20 northeast of Baghdad, officials said. She was the first woman in the history of the Iowa National Guard to be killed in combat, Iowa National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood said.

Military officials said Gabbard’s helicopter might have been shot down, but the investigation was continuing. Twelve National Guard soldiers from seven states and the U.S. Virgin Islands died in the crash.

Gabbard was 19th Iowa National Guard member and the 50th service member with Iowa ties to be killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gabbard was born in 1960 in Boone and graduated from Boone High School in 1979. She served in the National Guard for 27 years, starting in 1979, ascending to the rank of sergeant major. In her most recent post, Gabbard served as state operations sergeant major at the Iowa National Guard’s Joint Forces Headquarters in Johnston.
Gabbard’s long tenure with the Iowa National Guard made the pain from her loss acute, Hapgood said.

“She touched so many people in so many different areas of our organization,” he said.
As the first woman promoted to her rank, Gabbard was in a position to serve as a role model to other woman soldiers in particular, Hapgood said, but Gabbard never saw herself as a trail blazer, just a soldier and a leader.

“She didn’t take it as a burden,” Hapgood said. “She embraced the fact that she had gone places other people hadn’t gone before. I think she relished having soldiers look up to her.”

Gabbard deployed from Iowa on Dec. 16. She served as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the National Guard Affairs Team in Baghdad. It was her first deployment to the region, Hapgood said.

Gabbard leaves behind her husband, Edward Gabbard; daughter, Melissa Danielson; mother, Mary Van Cannon; brothers, Mark and Mike Van Cannon; sister, Marla Noren; two grandchildren, five stepdaughters and a stepson.


When I read this article I just knew I had to post this on my blog. Because CSM. Gabbard touched so many people in so many different ways I felt it was my duty to pass along her achivements to all my visitors. She has brought great honor upon herself and the United States National Guard and will be forever missed.