WASHINGTON - Reacting to shabby treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the House yesterday created a coterie of case managers, advocates and counselors for injured troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Wounded Warrior Assistance Act, approved 426-0, also establishes a hotline for medical patients to report problems in their treatment and demands an end to the red tape that has frustrated disabled service members as they move from Pentagon to Veterans Affairs Department care.
The bill would affect some of the more than 25,000 U.S. service members wounded in hostile action since military operations began in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We cannot allow those who have fought our foreign enemies in the defense of freedom to come home and fight the federal bureaucracy to get the health care they need," said Rep. Candice S. Miller (R., Mich.), a member of the Armed Services Committee.
The White House, in a statement, said that while those goals were commendable, the legislation was premature.
It suggested that Congress wait for a report from a presidential commission and a task force on the war-wounded created after the exposure of poor outpatient living conditions and treatment at Walter Reed. Those findings are expected by the end of July.
But lawmakers from both parties, intent to show support for troops regardless of divisions over the war in Iraq, were in no mood to wait.
More can be done later, said Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D., Mo.), but the legislation is "needed now to provide immediate support for our wounded warriors."
The bill requires Senate action before it goes to the president.
The White House also objected to a provision imposing a one-year moratorium on a program letting private companies compete with public agencies for military hospital work contracts. The administration said the program, criticized for contributing to substandard conditions and inadequate nonmedical staffing at Walter Reed, is generating billions in savings.
Congress was making sure that, despite the problems at Walter Reed, the medical facility not be closed as part of overall base closure plans. A Senate bill being debated to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a similar House-passed bill, both stop the closing of Walter Reed unless the defense secretary certifies there will be no disruption in patient care.
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the top Republican on Armed Services and a presidential candidate, said he was particularly pleased with a provision that would improve personal care by limiting medical-care case managers to 17 cases at a time. He praised another requiring that each wounded service member be assigned an advocate to help with such issues as housing and transportation.