We can do better for our wounded warriors | OPINION

By Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-31, Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, R-31, and David Fitzgerald, chief executive officer, Proliance Surgeons

Our soldiers face a battle even after coming back from courageously fighting overseas. In a nation of 21.8 million veterans, over 6 percent live in poverty and a fourth live with a disability. In 2008, only 2.9 million veterans received compensation for service-related disabilities, even though 3.4 million veterans have a service-related disability. Many do not know how to effectively access their benefits to their fullest extents and 74 percent lack a bachelor's degree or higher.

A large portion of our soldiers in Afghanistan (10 percent) and an even larger portion of our soldiers in Iraq (up to 20 percent) return with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly known as PTSD. The suicide rate of our soldiers is generally higher than that of our civilian population and it's increasing. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that one veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes; 18 veteran suicides occur each day and more than 116 active duty soldiers this year. These statistics reveal a grim reality. In the past year there have been more suicide deaths by soldiers than those dying in combat in Afghanistan.

Tricare, the healthcare program of the United States military that covers active and retired service members and their dependents, is facing rising costs in the face of fairly stagnant payments and funding that has not kept up with the rising cost of healthcare. The Department of Defense's healthcare costs have risen from $19 billion in 2001 to more than $49 billion for the next fiscal year. Meanwhile, 2012's price range for Tricare Prime plans, which range from $460 to $520, could rise to $893 to $2,048.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned, “the Tri-Care expenses are eating up the Pentagon budget.” This burden will likely be shifted onto our veterans and, while these costs are involved with the separate ordeal of rising overall healthcare costs, it is out of step with our commitment to our veterans.

The United States takes great pride in its values of freedom and liberty and we consistently celebrate and honor our military and those who fight for it. While we do not question our government’s intent to honor our soldiers, our systems with which we repay our heroes are often inadequate. Though a large variety of government programs no doubt help our nation’s veterans, we can do better. The reality is a sea of bureaucracy and a befuddling number of agencies set on different tasks.

Many wounded warriors are not offered adequate care or services. Thousands wait months with serious mental and physical disabilities. America needs to try new, innovative programs for healthcare to help our veterans and to vastly overhaul the military healthcare system that demands improvements.

We can fix our veterans' benefits system. There are a number of creative ideas out there for new and inventive ways to help get the system back into shape, both on the administration side and on the treatment side. In 2007, The President's Commission on Care for America's Wounded Warriors outlined a number of suggestions for improving the Department of Veteran's Affairs. These recommendations include modernizing and simplifying the disability process and providing incentives to veterans for completing their education tracks. The commission recommended instituting a series of programs that tailored the programs around the needs of veterans, such as setting up a web portal through which each veteran could access the information relevant to them. The commission also suggested that the government document the fluidity of information between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs, aiming to reduce bottlenecks in the benefits system. We greatly need improvements like these. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year demanded that the Department of Veterans Affairs overhaul its programs dealing with mental health, noting that it took an average of four years to supply full mental health benefits to veterans.

So, what can we do to help? On the treatment side of things, not all veterans need the same, standardized care. Some problems cannot be fixed with a one-size-fits-all approach and there is a need to modify our system so that we may fit veterans with an approach that works for them. There are a number of grassroots programs that are working effectively. Heartbeat…Serving Wounded Warriors, an organization that provides veterans with unique therapies to help treat injuries and PTSD, is just one example of how many largely-underutilized ideas are out there that can be used to help our veterans recover from their injuries. Heartbeat aims its programs, consisting of horseback riding therapy and scuba-diving therapy, at helping warriors exercise and train parts of their bodies injured during the war. Out-of-the box, grassroots programs like these attempt to fill the voids in our inadequate governmental programs for veterans.

A famous general in the U.S. military, George Washington, once said, "the willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation."

Let us run our government by those words and support programs such as Heartbeat.

Christopher Hurst, Independent Democrat, is the current chairman of the House Public Safety Committee and will chair the Government Accountability and Oversight Committee in January. He has served in the Legislature for 10 years.

Cathy Dahlquist, R-Enumclaw, will serve as the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee. She is currently serving her second term in the Legislature.


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