VA chief outlines immediate changes in vets' health care

All arriving patients will be screened for brain injuries, which are common because of frequent percussive blasts in Iraq.

Seriously injured military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will get speedier medical treatment and quicker enrollment in Veterans Affairs benefits under changes proposed by a presidential commission report released Tuesday.

Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson outlined measures proposed by the task force President Bush chose him to lead in response to news reports that some returning troops were housed for long periods in poor conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Charged with recommending changes that could be made without legislation or more funding, Nicholson's panel suggested 25 improvements. Another presidential panel headed by former Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala has been asked for long-range changes.

"We are going to accelerate the treatment of different categories of people who are coming back from the war," Nicholson said at the National Press Club.

Walter Reed has "medical care that is first-rate," Nicholson said, but some returning troops were put on medical hold while authorities determined "whether they were fit or unfit to stay on active duty."

"Now we will screen any patient who comes in to see if they have a form of brain injury," Nicholson said, injuries that are common because of "percussive blasts that are so frequent" in Iraq.

If someone is determined unfit, under the commission's plan he or she would immediately be transferred to the VA, which "will really speed up the process," Nicholson said. He said he wants to simplify the process for enrolling in VA programs by putting the process on line and "cutting through red tape that has been in the way."

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