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Panel urges new steps to boost care for veterans

Less red tape, more brain-injury screenings are recommended.

WASHINGTON - Injured troops and veterans grappling with backlogs and red tape now will fill out less paperwork, get more screenings for brain injury, and use a better disability-claims system, a presidential task force said yesterday.

Responding to criticism about poor treatment of injured military personnel, the interagency task force headed by Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson released its report and recommendations for immediately improving veterans' care.

Acknowledging errors had been made, the panel found that current government procedures were unwieldy, with unacceptable gaps as service members and veterans moved from military hospitals to the VA's vast network of 1,400 hospitals and clinics.

"The federal government must be responsive and efficient in delivering our benefits and services to these heroes," Nicholson said in announcing the recommendations at the National Press Club. "They should not have to fight bureaucratic red tape for benefits earned by their courageous service."

"We recognize that this huge bureaucracy needs a major transformation," he said.

Pointing to poor coordination between the VA and Pentagon, the recommendations call for a joint electronic case-management system that will allow officials to share files and track patients much like packages en route to a destination.

Case managers will be added to help guide troops and their families through the process, and all veterans receiving care in VA facilities will be tested for mild to moderate brain injury, an often unseen ailment that could emerge months after military service.

Attributing backlogs to "improved outreach," Nicholson said he also had requested more money to hire more staff to help cut the delay in processing benefit claims - now an average of 177 days - to 125 days.

Critics have noted that the Army consistently rates injured soldiers lower than the other armed services and VA. One congressional commission has suggested that the Army might be doing so to avoid paying higher disability benefits.

The task force also recommended that the government:

Expedite housing claims and other services for returning service members from Iraq and Afghanistan to reduce growing instances where they were forced to live on the streets.

Expand eligibility for small-business loans to provide more opportunities for veterans to obtain self-employment. The Labor Department also will work with veterans as they are recovering from injury to ease their transition to civilian life.

The task force is one of several commissions and congressional committees investigating ways to improve veterans care after disclosures in February of poor treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.