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Inside Politics

Panel leaders promise 'vigorous' review of veterans' care

Story Highlights

NEW: Congressional leaders want to participate in choosing panelists
• Dole, Shalala get marching orders from Bush
• Commission will work with task force from seven Cabinet agencies
• Actions prompted by disclosure of substandard conditions at Walter Reed
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and ex-Cabinet member Donna Shalala vowed Wednesday to carry out a "vigorous" review of health care for recovering war veterans, focusing primarily on Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

President Bush asked Dole and Shalala this week to lead a panel on care for those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their reports are due June 30.

Seven other panel members will be appointed as soon as possible, White House spokesman Tony Snow said Wednesday.

"We're going to do the best we can to make certain that those young men and women who served are properly cared for when they come home, and then properly transitioned after their care is complete," said Dole, the GOP presidential nominee in 1996, who lost to Bill Clinton.

Democratic congressional leaders praised the selection of Dole and Shalala, but called for congressional participation in choosing the remainder of the commission's members.

In a letter to the president, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, also urged Bush to include service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan on the panel.

"Acting on these suggestions will go a long way toward providing the thorough and nonpartisan review the current revelations demand, and toward guaranteeing our troops the kind of health care their service demands and they deserve," Reid and Pelosi wrote.

After meeting with Dole and Shalala, Bush said "I am concerned that our soldiers and their families are not getting the treatment that they deserve after having volunteered to defend our country." (Watch Bush address Walter Reed problems Video)

"I'm confident that this commission will bring forth the truth," Bush said.

Later, in an interview with CNN en Espaņol, Bush emphasized his goal for top medical treatment: "I want to make sure there is ... a seamless transition of excellent care."

Dole, who was wounded in World War II, noted at a news conference with Shalala that both of them have worked closely with veterans.

Shalala, now president of the University of Miami, was secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration.

Dole said the commission will coordinate its review with Congress and an interagency task force of seven Cabinet secretaries named by Bush to determine what can be done immediately to improve veterans' care. That task force is led by Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson.

Nicholson said Wednesday the task force will explore ways the seven departments -- Veterans Affairs, Defense, Health and Human Services, Energy, Office of Management and Budget, Housing and Urban Development and Labor -- can work together to serve the nation's "young heroes."

The task force's report to Bush is due in 45 days, he said.

The VA is hiring 100 patients' advocates to help guide wounded veterans and their families through the bureaucracy, Nicholson said.

Another report is due into the hands of Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a little over a month -- that of an independent review group he established on Walter Reed. Gates also said he had directed officials to review all the Defense Department's medical care programs, facilities and procedures "to ensure that we are providing all of our troops the standard of care that they deserve."

"I have told them the resources will not be an issue," Gates said.

The scandal at the nation's top military hospital was triggered by the Washington Post's description of shabby conditions and red tape faced by some recuperating war veterans at an adjunct building serving outpatients at Walter Reed. The commission also is to look at other similar military facilities. (Watch what veterans, families say about care Video)

Inpatient care at Walter Reed has not been criticized.

The scandal has resulted in the firing of Walter Reed's director and the resignation of the secretary of the Army.

Shalala said Bush made it clear he wants the panel to examine conditions from the battlefield to hospitals and beyond.

"He made it very clear that if one soldier doesn't get high-quality treatment and isn't transitioned back into civilian life or back into the military, that's unacceptable.

"And you could sense his anger and his anxiousness that we move as quickly as possible while the Defense Department is moving to make corrections at Walter Reed," Shalala said.

"I don't want to overstate or understate [the mission] other than it's going to be comprehensive. It's going to be vigorous," she said.

The problems at Walter Reed have stirred anger among congressional Democrats, who have pointed to the trouble as more proof that the Bush administration was unprepared for the Iraq war. Hearings are still under way on the hospital complaints.

Snow was asked about that accusation.

"That's preposterous. What happened to Walter Reed was not a failure of planning. It was failure of leadership," he said. "That dog won't hunt."

Maj. Gen. George Weightman, commander of Walter Reed, was fired last week, and Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey resigned in the wake of the uproar.

CNN's Kathleen Koch contributed to this report.


Former Sen. Bob Dole and former Cabinet Secretary Donna Shalala talk Wednesday about their plans to review health care for veterans.

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