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VA's ability to handle the wounded is questioned

Associated Press
Published March 7, 2008


BAGHDAD - The number of wounded soldiers has become a hallmark of the nearly 5-year-old Iraq war, pointing to both the use of roadside bombs as the extremists' weapon of choice and advances in battlefield medicine to save lives.

About 15 soldiers are wounded for every fatality, compared with 2.6 per death in Vietnam and 2.8 in Korea. But with those saved soldiers comes a financial price - one that veterans groups and others say the government is unwilling to pay.

Those critics also say that the tens of thousands of soldiers wounded in Iraq are part of a political numbers game, one they say undermines the medical system meant to care for them.

The most frequently cited figure is the 29,320 soldiers wounded in action in Iraq as of Thursday. But there have been 31,325 others treated for noncombat injuries and illness as of March 1.

"The Pentagon keeps two sets of books," said Linda Bilmes, a Harvard professor, expert on budgeting and public finance and co-author of The Three Trillion Dollar War.

Veterans Affairs predicts it will treat 330,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009 - at a cost of nearly $1.3-billion.

For the 2009 budget, the White House requested $93.7-billion for the VA, including $41.2-billion for medical care for all veterans. That's an increase of $2.3-billion over the current budget.

But critics say that is not enough for a system that has a backlog of about 400,000 pending medical claims and complaints, especially in mental health care.

Bilmes says the VA is hoping to offset some of the costs through increased fees and co-payments - putting more of the burden for health care costs back on soldiers.

Mental health aid recommended

A report the Army released Thursday recommends sending civilian psychiatrists to the war front, supplementing members of the uniformed mental health corps. Officials surveying troops found that more than one in four on repeat tours screened positive for anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. That was comparable to the previous year.

[Last modified March 7, 2008, 01:36:08]

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