WASHINGTON – Heavy reliance on Reserve and Guard units in Iraq and Afghanistan has overwhelmed a pay and health benefits system that was designed to serve part-time soldiers who are now fighting a full-time war.
As a result, reservists and guardsmen face an “unconscionable” tangle of red tape for medical treatment when they come home, despite efforts to bring the system up to date, lawmakers were told Thursday.
That news did not sit well with members of the House Committee on Government Reform, which heard testimony on the topic from soldiers and administrators.
“It is deeply troubling,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore. “This situation is simply unacceptable.”
One problem is that reservists and guardsmen can get extend their active-duty status so they can continue to get military health care, but some have wrongly been dropped out of active status when they came home injured, said Gregory Kutz of the Government Accountability Office.
A GAO study of whether injured soldiers were getting the benefits and pay they deserved found that, in the worst cases, soldiers switched out of active-duty status had to fight to be switched back. Some lost pay or turned to family members for help paying their bills in the process.
“There’s no one really in charge” of ensuring injured Guard and Reserve soldiers get the pay and benefits they are entitled to, Kutz said.
Cummings said after the hearing that it “is inconceivable to me that Reserve and National Guard military personnel who have been wounded or incapacitated in combat are subsequently removed from active duty status, disrupting their access to the medical care and pay they deserve.”
The Army recently set up a program that instantly extends pay and benefits for injured soldiers by six months, the GAO report said, but some problems remain.
So many problems that the new system has “all the appearance of a start-up effort,” said D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, even though the Army has known about the problem for years.
Norton, a Democrat, asked the panelists if the military should have an ombudsman who would be directly accountable for delays or confusion in the system, and several said that might make it better.
Such a person would help injured soldiers understand the system and facilitate communication on their behalf, said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association, but other measures also need to be taken.
“The system has to be a little more nimble, too,” he said.
Without changes, he said, injured guardsmen and reservists will continue to wonder “why it is, when they put their lives on the line . . . they can’t get decent health care.”
“We can’t expect a perfect system, but we must have a better system,” Goheen said.
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