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Wednesday, November 10

VA seeks prosthetic support for amputees

By Dennis Camire | GNS

WASHNGTON - Erick Castro, who lost his left leg in Iraq to a rocket-propelled grenade, really likes the high-tech artificial leg the military gave him.

But finding a prosthetic technician near his Santa Ana, Calif., home to help keep it working is a problem.

``I tried going with the Veterans Affairs Department but there wasn't much experience there,'' said Castro, who was an Army sergeant riding in an armored personnel carrier in April 2003 when he was hit. ``Instead, the VA actually let me go outside and look for a vendor. Right now, I'm in the process of talking to several of them.''

When Castro finds one, VA will pick up the bill.

Castro, who is studying mechanical engineering at Santa Ana Community College, is among the 25,000 amputees who have received artificial limbs from VA. So far, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced about 160 amputees among the wounded, a ``significant number'' among those coming back injured, according to VA Secretary Anthony Principi.

The VA spends about $53 million a year on prosthetics and their maintenance.

``We provide state-of-the-art equipment,'' said Fred Downs, chief consultant for the VA Prosthetics and Sensory Aids Service. ``That includes the computer leg, the computer knee, all the high-tech component parts, energy-storing feet, articulated ankles. It also includes myoelectric arms, elbows and hands.''

On average, a computer-controlled leg like Castor's costs $50,000. A myoelectric arm with sensors can run from $50,000 to $70,000, depending on its complexity.

In addition to its 55 prosthetic labs and 150 technicians, called prosthetists, to build and match the limbs to the amputees, VA also contracts with outside hospitals and technicians to help the amputees with replacements and maintenance.

The support is wide because many amputees are very particular about who their technician is, said Downs, who lost his right arm to a mine in Vietnam.

``The amputee tries to find a match, somebody who has the right chemistry that they like,'' Downs said. ``We want them to be happy with who they have.''

Principi said dealing with amputees coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan is a major challenge to ensure the agency is caring for them and providing them with the latest in artificial limbs.

``In my view, the VA should be a leader in prosthetic development,'' said Principi, who said he hasn't decided if he'll stay in his current job for President Bush's next term. ``I want to see the VA on that leading edge and not the trailing edge. I want to ensure that we are applying the resources that we have.''

But some veterans groups are concerned about VA's ability to meet the needs of veterans in future years.

Joy J. Ilem, assistant legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said the group is concerned that the VA is not fully prepared to meet the amputees' needs with the new and costly prosthetic limbs.

``Additionally we question if the VA can continue to provide the same level of care for veterans who suffered traumatic amputations in previous wars and conflicts,'' she said.

Some DAV members are complaining that it's difficult to find a good technician who works with the patient to fit them with artificial limbs or one that will accept VA's reimbursement rate, Ilem said.

But some veterans who are amputees believe VA is doing a good job for them.

``It's pretty good,'' said Michael NcNaughton of Denham Springs, La., who lost his right leg and two fingers on his right hand while clearing land mines in Afghanistan in 2003. ``It's a little different from the Army in that it's more paperwork, but so far they have been very helpful.''

McNaughton, who was serving with the Louisiana National Guard, said VA is helping him with anything he needs as far as prosthetics are concerned.