Junior’s (DIS)Regard for the Vets

Iraq war brain trauma victims turn to private care
23 Apr 2007 13:03:29 GMT
Source: Reuters
By Kim Dixon

CHICAGO, April 23 (Reuters) – Sgt. Eric Edmundson arrived at the U.S. Army’s Walter Reed hospital in October 2005 with a severe head concussion, a victim of one of the many roadside bombs that are a part of daily life for soldiers in Iraq.

Six months later, after intense physical rehab and an infection that made control of his limbs futile, his morale hit bottom. The Department of Veterans Affairs gave him the choice of a nursing home or returning home from a Richmond, Virginia facility, his family said.

“We felt the VA had a ‘wait and see’ attitude, and our belief was that time was our enemy,” said Eric’s father Edward, who left his job at Conagra Foods in North Carolina to be his son’s full-time health advocate. “So we took him home.”

Unsatisfied with the outcome, Eric and his family eventually found treatment at a private hospital, and began a slow path to recovery. But his story is unusual. Wounded vets are seldom treated at private hospitals, which say they offer expertise for severe brain injuries like Eric’s. The VA is resisting using their services, setting up a clash over care for some the war’s most seriously wounded veterans.

Of the nearly 24,000 wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, about a third suffer from some degree of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, according to the General Accounting Office.

The government has been on the defensive about veterans’ medical care after a probe found shoddy living conditions of recovering wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, considered the jewel in the military’s health care system.

A newly-appointed Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors was formed by U.S. President George Bush in response. A major topic is whether the civilian sector could be used more in treating traumatic brain injury, one of the fastest growing injuries of the war.

“That is a $64,000 question, and one that the Commission will be studying,” as it holds hearings in advance of drawing up recommendations for Bush, said Edward Eckenhoff, president of the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington and a member of the commission.

CASE BY CASE

The VA has four hospitals to treat severe brain injuries, in Minneapolis, California, Florida and Virginia. Critics say the total of 48 hospital beds in the entire VA system devoted to the brain injuries is inadequate to meet demand.

Barbara Sigford, the VA’s National Director for Physical Medicine and Rehab, said the agency’s expertise in spinal cord injuries and amputations, often intertwined with brain trauma, has been growing for the past 20 years.

“This isn’t new for us by any means,” she said. “I would say that seldom is it in someone’s best interest to transfer them to another (civilian) program.”

Sigford said there is no issue of overcrowding since the four VA trauma centers are running at about 80 percent capacity.

For their part, private hospitals said they have been building expertise by treating tough brain injuries for decades, whether for construction accidents or car crash victims. The VA by contrast has been caring for mostly chronic illness in Vietnam and World War II veterans, they say.

Jeremy Chwat, executive vice president of the advocacy group, the Wounded Warrior project, said the VA does a good job of caring for critical patients once they arrive, but that it could use assistance in the long road of rehabilitation.

“We’ve been urging them to collaborate with the private sector. It’s about choice; we want veterans to choose the VA but not be captive by it,” he said.

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