Armed forces veterans to get priority NHS treatment

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LONDON, Nov 23 (Reuters) Military veterans will receive priority treatment on the National Health Service, the government said today, as it battled to offset criticism of its treatment of the armed forces.

Under the new initiative, veterans will receive quicker access to the NHS for any injuries or ill-health sustained during their time in service and can also take advantage of a new programme of mental health services.

The announcement came a day after a stinging attack on the government by five former military defence chiefs who accused Prime Minister Gordon Brown of neglecting the armed forces and putting soldiers' lives at risk.

''Our service men and women do an outstanding job and we all owe them a debt of gratitude and a duty of care, particularly those who have developed health problems as a result of their military service,'' said Health Secretary Alan Johnson.

''Under long-standing practice, war pensioners have had priority NHS access, but that has not always been fully understood. I want to make sure that everyone understands the current provisions.'' The announcement follows a decision in October to make larger payments to severely wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, where the British military has faced some of its most intense fighting in decades.

The MoD will now pay 285,000 pounds to soldiers who receive multiple injuries from a single attack. Previously, only a fixed amount was paid out for the worst injuries, leading to a case in which a man lost his legs and ended up with severe brain damage but received only 150,000 pounds in compensation.

There has also been a drive to increase the number of mental health services amid signs that more and more troops are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress-related mental problems.

Around 13,000 troops are currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tens of thousands more have been circulated through the war zones since 2001, when US-led forces invaded Afghanistan. Iraq was invaded in 2003.

While the measures will be a boost to veterans needing medical assistance, it is unlikely to do much to offset the criticism levelled at the government today.

Admiral Michael Boyce, who led British forces into Iraq before retiring in 2003, said in his speech in the House of Lords there was ''blood on the floor'' at the MoD as officials rushed to slash spending programmes while soldiers fought abroad.

General Charles Guthrie, chief of defence staff from 1997 to 2001, said Brown was personally to blame for failing to fund the forces during a decade in charge of the treasury.

''He was the most unsympathetic Chancellor of the Exchequer as far as defence is concerned,'' he said. ''I think really he must take much of the blame for the very serious situation we find the services in today.'' Asked about the speeches while on a trip to Africa, Brown said: ''I've got nothing but praise for our armed forces. I visited them in Iraq and Afghanistan and what they are doing is some acts of great courage and determination and sacrifice.

''I want to see the armed forces properly equipped with the resources that they need. And that's why every year of this government we've been increasing expenditure on defence.'' Reuters RC GC1929

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