WASHINGTON (Army News Service, April 13, 2007) - Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England yesterday called for a new policy that moves wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan to the front of the line in the disability rating process while system-wide fixes to the disability and health care systems are put in place.

Deputy Defense Secretary England recommended an immediate measure to speed combat-wounded troops through the DoD disability system and smooth their transition to the Department of Veterans Affairs system. The goal, he said, is "an uninterrupted, seamless continuum of care and support" that ensures nobody falls through the cracks or gets mired down in bureaucratic red tape.

Wounded troops represent about 11 percent of the 25,000 servicemembers being processed through DoD's disability system. The problem, Deputy Defense Secretary England told the senators, is that this 11 percent is funneled through the system just as the other 89 percent, many of them career servicemembers preparing to retire.

This "one-size-fits-all rating process" bogs down the processing of combat-wounded troops cases, Deputy Defense Secretary England said.

Instead, he recommended that DoD expedite its cases to smooth their transition into VA care. Many of the wounded troops' cases are relatively clear-cut and can be moved through the system quickly, he said.

Deputy Defense Secretary England acknowledged that this immediate fix is just one step toward improving the way wounded troops are cared for and, when appropriate, processed through the disability system. He said he's looking forward to hearing what the many studies, reviews, commissions and panels have to say about the matter when they report their findings before the year's end.

What's needed, he said, is a broad-based system that ensures combat-wounded troops get the care and treatment they deserve. "In my judgment, it is time to step back and take a holistic look at the system instead of just applying fixes to the system," Deputy Defense Secretary England told the committees. "We need an integrated, systemic solution with the right mechanisms in place ... that makes sense from the Soldier's perspective."

That requires thinking about what the best system would look like if it were being built from scratch and what steps would have to be taken to get it, he said.

Deputy Defense Secretary England said it also may require looking to other national systems associated with disability determination and compensation: the Social Security Administration's disability payments, the Department of Labor's workmen's compensation program and the Department of Veterans Affairs and DoD disability systems, among them.

"They are all carried out in different ways, against different systems to achieve different ends," he said.

The differences between these complex programs can be confusing to benefit recipients, Deputy Defense Secretary England said, suggesting the need for a new national approach for compensating disabled workers. "It may be time to cast a wider net and look at this whole area of disability," he said.

(Ms. Donna Miles writes for the American Forces Press Service.)