When asked by Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., how the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) planned to streamline the transition process for troops leaving active duty, DoD Secretary Leon Panetta said, "The bottom line is, frankly, we've just got to kick ass, and try to make it happen. And that's what we're going to do."
Panetta made his reply while sitting next to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki at an historic joint session of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs (HCVA) and the House Armed Services Committee (HASC). The July 25 hearing was the first time that VA and DoD secretaries had both appeared as witnesses.
Buerkle noted it has been five years since the Dole-Shalala Commission issued an urgent call to streamline the transition process for veterans returning to civilian life. "We (still) have two very distinct entities," she said. "We've had multiple hearings trying to get assurance from DoD and from the VA as to how you're going to get this together, so we can make sure our veterans get the services, without being overwhelmed by an extremely complex system."
Shinseki's response to the same question focused on the Federal Recovery Coordination Program, created in 2007. "We have a task force with the specific direction to study and bring harmony to these programs," Shinseki said. "Where are we duplicating one another? Where are we not doing things that we should be doing?"
Buerkle's exchange with the two secretaries typified a major theme of the hearing: How can VA and DoD make their transition programs for veterans more timely, more effective and less bureaucratic?
In his opening remarks, Rep. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif.,the HASC chair, said Congress is "painfully aware that, at this very moment, 26,000 servicemembers are in the midst of the disability evaluation process, and are forced to wait over 400 days, on average, before they can return home to their communities."
More than a decade ago, McKeon said, Congress mandated that DoD and VA create a joint, integrated electronic health record to facilitate servicemembers' transition from one health-care system to another. "Unfortunately, after continuing delays, we are now told that it isn't expected to be completed until 2017," he said.
With the jobless rate for veterans aged 18-24 standing at about 23 percent, McKeon wanted to hear the secretaries' views on the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) for military personnel leaving active duty. "Do you both agree on TAP's objectives?" McKeon asked. "For example, is TAP designed to prepare servicemembers for entry into the job market? Or is the purpose to actually get a servicemember a job? How do you measure whether TAP is achieving its objectives?"
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the HCVA chair, said VA and DoD have created two separate programs for transitioning veterans, and the Government Accountability Office testified that, "Proliferation of these programs has resulted not only in inefficiencies, but also confusion for those being served. Consequently, the intended purpose, which is to better manage and facilitate care and service, may actually have had the opposite effect."
Despite repeated calls for VA and DoD to share their health-record information electronically, "it seems the goal post continues to move, over and over again, on when this is finally going to take place," Miller said.
Panetta's testimony centered on five priority areas that DoD and VA are working together on: re-tooling TAP, refining the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES), delivering an integrated electronic health-record system, collaborating on mental and behavioral health treatments, and preventing military suicides.
As someone who has spent more than 40 years in government, Panetta said he is "well aware that, too often, the very best intentions of caring for our veterans can get trapped in bureaucratic in-fighting. It gets trapped by conflicting rules and regulations, it gets trapped by frustrating levels of responsibility -- this cannot be an excuse for not dealing with these issues."
Shinseki began his testimony by acknowledging veterans service organizations, whose "insights have been helpful in developing resources and improving the programs" that VA supervises.
"Our requirements in VA continue to grow for about a decade – maybe sometimes a little more – after the last combatant comes back from operations," Shinseki said. "So for us, it's important that we spend the time now to better anticipate (veterans') needs for care, for benefits, and for a successful transition to civilian life."
In his testimony, Shinseki listed VA's four top priorities: the Integrated Electronic Health-Care Record, more sharing of data with DoD, providing sufficient support for the IDES program, and redesigning the transition process so that it provisions of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act.
Collaboration between VA and DoD is critically important to the transition process for veterans, Shinseki said. "We simply must transition them better," he testified. "We do this best with ‘warm' hand-offs between the departments. That's key to ensuring the success of transitioning servicemembers back to their communities in productive ways.
"We know we have a responsibility to better-harmonize our two departments in ways that better serve our servicemembers, families, veterans and our survivors."