WASHINGTON - The Army might be shortchanging injured soldiers by rating the severity of their disabilities with a system that is both unwieldy and inconsistent, the head of a special commission said Thursday.
Pentagon officials denied those who rate the disabilities would cheat service members but pledged to investigate. "I'm trying to make sense of this finding," said acting Army Secretary Pete Geren.
Meanwhile, two Democratic senators criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs, expressing concern that President Bush's nominee to be VA's undersecretary for health, Michael Kussman, was long aware of problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center but didn't respond.
"The warning lights were flashing at Walter Reed years ago, but the Bush administration chose to ignore the problem and our injured service members paid the price," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Testimony to Congress on Thursday by retired Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott, chairman of the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission, is the latest to document problems in a system under extra strain as thousands of service members return from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Scott suggested there could be an effort to keep costs down as the military rates the severity of soldiers' disabilities. He said the Pentagon "has strong incentive to assign ratings less than 30 percent" so the military won't have to pay disability benefits.
In a preliminary review of Pentagon and VA data, Scott's commission found the Army was much more likely than the other active forces to assign a disability rating of less than 30 percent, the typical cutoff to determine whether a person can get lifetime retirement payments and health care.
VA ratings tend to be higher, due to a separate system that gives consideration to whether injured veterans are afflicted with multiple disabilities.
"It is apparent that service members are not well-served," Scott said at an unusual joint hearing of the Senate Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees.
His commission was formed in 2004 to study ways to improve the benefits system and is to issue a report later this year.
Separately, the VA came under fire by members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee after reports that Kussman, now the acting undersecretary, and other top department officials knew of problems at Walter Reed as early as 2004.
At the time, Kussman co-chaired a task force on improving veterans care and produced a report in which Walter Reed patients - seriously wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan - stated that they were "frustrated, confused, sometimes angry" about their experiences, according to Salon.com.
"It's troubling that that long ago there was a report somewhere that these issues were festering over there. Was it not shared with anybody at the VA at the time?" Murray said.
"Oh no, we knew about it," Kussman replied.
Later, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., sent a letter to Bush to express concerns about Kussman's nomination as permanent undersecretary for health. Obama asked that Bush direct VA Secretary Jim Nicholson to release briefings and reports pertaining to when the department first learned of problems at Walter Reed.
A VA spokesman responded late Thursday that the department was aware of bureaucratic problems cited by Walter Reed patients, who sometimes fall in a gray area between Pentagon and VA care as they transition from injured servicemembers to retired veterans.