Severely wounded Iraq veterans struggling to find their rooms, get appointments, or get their paperwork to the right offices. Families unable to communicate with doctors or find housing near the hospital. Mold, rodents and cockroaches in patients' rooms. Hopefully, you have heard about this story by now.
At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the premier Army hospital in the country, wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were facing inexcusable conditions. The Army and the Department of Defense saw no need to fix these problems until they were embarrassed by a series of reports in the Washington Post. (Learn more about the issue, and hear IAVA's response to the Walter Reed scandal on NBC Nightly News or Hardball.)
Luckily, some members of Congress are taking the lead on this issue. Senators McCaskill and Obama have proposed legislation to improve the ratio of caseworkers to recovering veterans and establish timelines for repairing substandard facilities. We hope we can count on all other lawmakers to support this bill.
But problems at Walter Reed are just the tip of the iceberg. When these same veterans leave Walter Reed and return to their local clinics and hospitals, they will be entering the chronically underfunded and understaffed Veterans Affairs system -- where these very same veterans will again face the long wait times, aging facilities, and inadequate staffing.
The VA is doing the best they can with the funding they've received. But unfortunately, just as the Bush Admininstration has hedged about the situation at Walter Reed (see Tony Snow's pathetic response to the fiasco), they've also passed the buck on VA funding. Their new budget plan touts an increase in VA funding for 2008. But check the fine print. In 2009 and 2010, just as hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will be first be seeking VA care, the President's budget actually cuts veterans' health care funding. Tell me that doesn't impact the morale of our people on the front lines.
So while troops at Walter Reed can probably look forward to fewer mice and more caseworkers - they should expect more of the same neglect and delays once they leave DC and arrive at the local VA. The worst stories may be yet to come. The real question is, without the cameras and investigative reporters around, will politicians in Washington continue to show real support for these wounded troops?