Bob Dole on Investigating Veterans' Medical Care

President Bush has appointed former Sen. Bob Dole and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala to chair a commission to examine veterans' medical care. The panel is a response to a series of Washington Post articles revealing inadequate conditions at Walter Reed and other facilities.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Earlier this week President Bush appointed a bipartisan panel to help fix the ailing medical system that provides care for wounded U.S. troops. Former Senator Bob Dole and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala will head the Military Medical Commission. It will investigate conditions at both active duty military and veterans' hospitals. Former Senator Bob Dole has lots of experience with the military medical system.

He was seriously wounded while serving in Europe during World War II. He spent years going through multiple surgeries and extensive therapy, and ultimately he lost the use of his right arm. He joined us from his office in Washington and he describes his reaction upon reading the Washington Post series about the conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

BOB DOLE: Well, I was surprised. You know, I visit Walter Reed Hospital, sometimes as a patient, but many times just to - I went over for thanksgiving dinner, for example. My wife and I were always out there for Christmas dinner with the soldiers. So I'm there quite often, but I wasn't in Building 18, which is not sort of part of the campus, it's across the street; used to be a hotel, and then the government took over this building, and obviously it wasn't taken care off.

NORRIS: So you, with the time that you spent at Walter Reed, did you have any indication that conditions had deteriorated to this degree?

DOLE: Well, yeah. I was in the - when I was a patient there, and I've been a patient -I had kidney stones removed there, I had a prostatectomy there. I had a - part of my colon removed at Walter Reed, and I've been there - I took a fall a couple of years ago and spent 41 days there.

And so I, you know, I have a pretty good idea of moving around the different areas for x-rays and whatever. You know, it's actually a - it's a good hospital, but I - in the case of Building 18 and probably some other areas that haven't been looked at there are shortcomings. But I think in the main hospital I don't think it's a question of medical care. It's the bureaucracy and it's a hand off to the VA, and whether or not we make certain that they get the best possible care when they leave. And hopefully with all the people now focused on it they will be addressed.

NORRIS: In accepting this mission did you inform the president as to what you would need to make sure that your recommendations have teeth, that they don't get lost in this morass of other suggestions from all these other panels?

DOLE: You know, I've been around long enough, and so has Secretary Shalala, that we both weren't interested in being on some commission that, when you finish and hand in a report, they say thank you very much and that's the end of it. And the president made it very clear to both of us that, you know, if we needed something, we would have it. You know, hopefully, we're going to come up with something that might be of help, we might complement what's happening in the Congress and with other groups.

NORRIS: Would it be fair to say that that you're angry about what's going on?

DOLE: Well, having been a, you know, disabled veteran most of my life and having worked with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans as a service officer in my younger days trying to help veterans with their claims.

You know, it seems to be we can - if we can spend all the money we're spending to make certain they get to Iraq or Afghanistan and all the money we spend while they're there, we ought to make certain we spend enough when they come home, whether you're injured or wounded, or whether you've got some stress problem or brain injury, mental health, whatever it is, some of these young men have drug problems, some have alcohol problems, some have family problems. You know, it's very complex.

It's not just somebody coming in with a wound that can be addressed and taken care of and young men or young women go back to the unit, or go back to the Guard or reserve or home. Some of these are very - particularly brain injuries. Not many VA hospitals are equipped to deal with traumatic brain injuries. You know, I'm just thinking sort out of the box. We need to work out some arrangement with especially hospitals in the private sector where veterans, or young men and women on active duty, can be treated in those hospitals, where we know they will get the best possible care.

NORRIS: I guess one question would be who would put the bill for that?

DOLE: The government. He's entitled. I mean, or she would be entitled. We have an obligation as Americans. And I'd be hard-pressed to find some American who wouldn't be willing to spend whatever it takes to make certain that we provided the best possible care.

NORRIS: Mr. Dole, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DOLE: Okay, Michele. Thank you.

NORRIS: We were speaking with former Senator Bob Dole. He, along with former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, will head the Military Medical Commission that will investigate conditions at both active duty and veterans' hospitals.

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