President Bush observed Memorial Day by creating a new task force to address the quality of health care service for veterans. In an executive order
issued Monday, Bush established the "President's Task Force to Improve Health Care Delivery for Our Nation's Veterans." Bush will appoint the task force members, who will include health care experts, Veterans Affairs and Defense Department health care system officials, and representatives of veterans' and military organizations. The 15-member group is charged with:
- Identifying ways to improve veterans' benefits and services, and promoting coordination between the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
- Finding ways to improve business practices, such as budgeting processes, billing, cost accounting, information technology and reimbursement at Defense and Veterans Affairs.
- Fostering partnerships between the two departments to get the best use out of buildings, information technology and care.
The executive order also requires Veterans Affairs to fund and support the task force. The task force must issue a report within two years. Labor union officials testified during a recent congressional hearing
that the quality of the Veterans Affairs' health care system is suffering because of shortages in its nursing staff and increased outsourcing. From 1995 to 2000, Veterans Affairs reduced its registered nurses by 10 percent, licensed practical nurses by 13 percent and nursing assistants by 30 percent. Since then, registered nurses and licensed practical nurses have taken on much of the work performed by nursing assistants, such as helping patients eat and bathe. The President's order "doesn't necessarily name staffing as a problem, but you would have to look at staffing as one of the problem areas," said Alma Lee, president of the American Federation of Government Employees National Veterans Affairs Council. AFGE is the largest federal employees' union. Lee said union members should be included on the task force. "I think our bargaining unit employees can help solve the problems because they see the problems every day, but we can't correct them without approval from the higher-ups," she said.