Lawmakers tell Panetta, Shinseki it's time for collaboration to yield results
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers frustrated at years of limited collaboration between defense and Veterans Affairs officials pressed the secretaries of those departments Wednesday to ensure that servicemembers’ lives aren’t lost to paperwork mistakes and red tape.
“We’ve been talking for decades about this. ... We have to break down the bureaucracy,” said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif. “People are dying because these systems aren’t integrated.”
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made a rare joint appearance on Capitol Hill to reiterate their promise to deliver lifelong care for troops, calling it a moral and national security imperative.
But lawmakers said that despite years of promise, the two agencies haven’t found solutions to some of the most basic problems facing troops.
In the first ever combined hearing of the House Armed Services and House Veterans Affairs committees, representatives pressed the secretaries to explain why lifelong digital military medical records are still five years away, why suicide numbers continue to mount, why troops continue to be confused by their veterans benefits, and why the departments’ work together hasn’t produced better results.
“Collaboration and cooperation between VA and DOD have never been more important, and I think for the next two decades ... this will be the work of the nation,” Shinseki said.
The agencies represent the two largest bureaucracies in the country, in terms of personnel and funding.
Panetta said the VA health care system is already “overwhelmed” with claims from troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and he expects problems to get worse as the Afghan war winds down and the military starts reducing its personnel numbers.
Shinseki said he and Panetta have met regularly, sorting out ways to ease transition out of the military.
The departments have set up a plan for a joint medical records system, and though it’s been in the works since 2009, it won’t be fully operational until 2017. They’ve overhauled an integrated disability evaluation program, but the VA still has a massive backlog of disability claims. Both are working on new combined mental health access and suicide prevention programs, but have yet to see positive results.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Panetta said. “There is no doubt we’re working more closely than ever before. But we have more work to do.”
Lawmakers said they remain concerned by veterans unemployment rates and homeless veterans numbers, although both have declined in recent months.
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, said he is worried that lingering territorial disputes between the agency will undermine cooperation. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said despite the optimism from the departments, “what we’ve not seen are clear, bottom-line results.”
Panetta said he too is concerned with the slow progress, especially in curbing suicides. He said caring for troops after combat is part of the larger cost and responsibility of war, and he assured lawmakers that officials take seriously that “sacred responsibility.”
“We are in the process of building an integrated military and veterans support system,” he said. “Something that should have been done a long time ago.”