AUGUSTA – Maine veterans have joined with national groups in protesting delays by the U.S. Department of Defense in getting medical records of wounded and injured soldiers transferred to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The delays are preventing timely medical care and in some cases threatening the lives of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
At a hearing last month before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, to which U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine belongs, witnesses gave several examples of wounded and disabled veterans from across the country who did not receive their medical records in a timely fashion and suffered as a result.
Michaud said it appears Maine has not had as many problems as other areas of the country, but that the problem is a serious one.
“This has been on my radar screen for a while,” he said. “One of the things we have got to do is push the Department of Defense to have their medical records so you can transfer them electronically. The VA has electronic medical records. The problem has been with the DOD.”
Donald Simoneau, American Legion Department Commander for Maine, said the issue was a hot topic at the national headquarters where he was participating in a training session this week.
“There are a lot of problems in some of these other states,” he said.
A recent report by the federal Government Accountability Office, which also criticized the Department of Defense, showed that through June, more than 19,000 service members had been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The report indicated that 65 percent had blast injuries, which often result in trauma requiring comprehensive rehabilitation. GAO said that nearly 200 severely wounded members, while still on active duty, have been transferred to VA polytrauma centers for care and rehabilitation. Most of these cases involve brain injury, missing limbs and spinal cord injuries.
But because of the problem in getting medical records transferred from the Department of Defense, there have been delays in providing proper care and rehabilitation for some of the war-wounded veterans, the GAO reported.
While he had heard of some issues with medical records in Maine, Simoneau said he was not in a position to determine the scope of the problem here.
“I personally know of some cases, but I am not comfortable giving out names,” said Auburn veteran Bob Shaw. “I have heard of some backlogs, and I know they have had to complain to get things straightened out.”
Rosemary Lane, legislative chair of Maine Veterans of Foreign Wars, said, “There have been some problems, but I think we have most of them resolved, but I can’t say for sure.”
National VFW officials raised the issue at the Veterans Affairs Committee hearing last month.
Gary Kurpius, the VFW’s national commander, said the rhetoric from both DOD and the VA about a “seamless” transition from active-duty medical care to the VA just is not true.
“I am not sure we can even point to signs of progress,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said this week that the House hearings caught her and other committee members by surprise.
“This is very troubling,” she said. “The prompt transfer of these medical records is necessary to assure that our veterans get the best of medical treatment.”
Collins said when Congress returns to work after the elections she intends to ask the Armed Services Committee to look into the issue.
“If medical records are delayed in being transferred from DOD to the VA or they are incomplete, that can slow treatment,” she said. “This is very troubling.”
Michaud said the VA has been a leader in using electronic medical records and the DOD needs to catch up. The Democrat said the concern is truly bipartisan and said the chair of the House Veterans Committee, Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., told the panel about his visit to the major medical facility in Germany for wounded American troops from Iraq.
“Wounded GIs arriving at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center minutes after we arrived had paper medical records in files on their chests,” Buyer said. “This is just not acceptable.”
Michaud said committee members are not going to back down on the issue and will push officials at both agencies to improve medical records transfer and develop a “seamless” electronic records system.
“The federal government owes these veterans the medical care they were promised,” he said. “This is as much a part of the war on terror as the funding for the military, and we are not doing what we should be doing.”
Auburn veteran Shaw said that promise to veterans is being forgotten.
“When you put on a uniform, and you serve your country,” he said, “that’s part of the promise DOD made to its veterans that they will take care of their health care.”