On Dec. 6, during a joint press conference at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in Washington, D.C., VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said steps are being taken to aid transitioning servicemembers and to help reduce VA's benefits claims backlog. Both Shinseki and Panetta answered calls by The American Legion and others to forge a closer bond with greater cooperation and sharing of information.
The two spoke of their common dedication to the welfare of active duty troops and veterans, and Shinseki noted that "very little of what we do here" originates at the Department of Veterans Affairs "so that's why achieving our priorities at VA requires a close and collaborative working relationship." He also said that the two departments were "closer together than ever before."
"We have underwritten joint DoD/VA medical facilities and begun harmonizing our acquisition decisions," Shinseki said. "We have committed both departments to a single, common, joint, integrated electronic health record (IEHR), which will be open in architecture and non-proprietary in design." This means the software design of IEHR can be easily replicated among civilian health care providers, making such records more universally accessible.
"Today, veterans wait too long to receive the benefits they have earned and that's why, together, we are streamlining the processes, sharing more information between our departments," Shinseki said. He also spoke of joint efforts to improve the transition assistance program for servicemembers "so that it is mandatory, seamless and productive." "The new program," he said, "provides a warm handoff from servicemember to veteran status to insure that all who serve are prepared to transition to civilian life and that they have access to VA benefits.
"Leon (Panetta) and I are working side by side to insure that servicemembers and veterans receive the care that they have earned."
Panetta echoed Shinseki's remarks concerning commitments to a closer relationship, but admitted the road to a common ground is not always smooth. "We are trying to build an integrated military and veteran support system (but) make no mistake, this is a real challenge," he said. "This is not something that comes easy to two very large departments, two bureaucracies that have their own rules and their own regulations. But it is important to get them to work together."
Meanwhile, Panetta reiterated Shinseki's assertion that the level of cooperation and collaboration between the two departments is "better than it ever has been in the past." "This effort cannot be about turf. It has got to be about serving our veterans," Panetta said.
Upon being questioned about the possible negative effects of sequestration — the impending massive cuts to defense spending — on today's and tomorrow's veterans, Shinseki said, "Right now the VA is immune." However, he said that vigilance on the matter of budget cuts must be maintained. Both secretaries vowed to continue their efforts to mitigate possible ill effects of sequestration on veterans.