WASHINGTON — Veterans' hospitals are prepared for a new responsibility of treating U.S. military personnel wounded in the war against Iraq, Veterans Affairs Secretary Edward J. Derwinski told Congress today.
"We will be able to absorb the flow of casualties," Derwinski said in testimony to the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the department.
"The morale is high. We are ready to go," added Dr. James Holsinger, chief medical director of the department.
Holsinger noted in an interview last week that usually the department's "work starts after wars are over and the soldiers have come home." That changed because of a 1982 law, which designates veterans' hospitals as the second line of defense to military hospitals in time of conflict or national emergency involving military personnel.
As part of their contingency plan for the Persian Gulf War, VA hospitals are prepared to provide 8,053 beds in 24 hours, 15,010 in 72 hours and 25,000 in a month, Derwinski told the subcommittee.
Military hospitals had room for 500,000 casualties in World War II. But that system has shrunk to 14,000 beds, making 80 of the 172 veterans hospitals a critical link in the system of medical care.
The central question facing the government, said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairman of the subcommittee, is whether the Pentagon-VA plan for treating the wounded is "as fit for duty as are the men and women of Operation Desert Storm."
"You're never completely ready, but I think we can handle just about anything that happens," Dr. Raymond Bonnabeau of the department's Emergency Medical Preparedness Office said last week.
Veterans groups aren't so sure.
The hospitals are chronically under-funded and understaffed, and "they've been hard-pressed for a number of years," said Rick Heilman, legislative director of the 1.1-million-member Disabled American Veterans.
Veterans hospitals would have difficulty caring for significant numbers of wounded, said Heilman, whose Army paratrooper son is serving in Operation Desert Storm.
The war against Iraq may be the biggest challenge ever for the 61-year-old VA, which operates the nation's largest health care system. Bonnabeau spent five months planning the department's response to hostilities in the gulf region.