Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki acknowledged Wednesday that they have been frustrated by departmental bureaucracy in their attempts to streamline military health care for severely wounded service members.
At a rare joint appearance before the House Armed Services and House Veterans Affairs committees, the secretaries pointed to what they called unprecedented cooperation between their two departments in battling some of their most pressing problems, including the high rate of military suicide and the huge backlog of disability claims.
But they have been unable to consolidate separate VA and DoD programs to coordinate the long-term recovery of seriously wounded service members, despite warnings from the Government Accountability Office that the proliferation of programs may increase red tape.
“Secretary Shinseki and I share the same frustration,” Panetta said in response to questioning from Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, (R-N.Y.) “We’ve been working on this, and frankly we’ve been pushing, to try to say why can’t we get faster results, why can’t we get this done on a faster track.
“Bottom line is, frankly, we’re just going to have to kick ass and try to make it happen, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Shinseki said the separate VA and DoD programs “don’t quite harmonize” and that the issue remains under study, as it was last year. He said the departments hope to report back to Congress in several months on their efforts to eliminate duplication.
The Washington Post reported in November that despite the recommendations of the Dole-Shalala commission in 2007 to create a single point of contact to cut red tape for the most severely wounded service members, DoD and VA had instead created at least a dozen programs to coordinate the care.
Panetta said that DoD and VA are building an integrated military and veteran support system, “something that should have been done a long time ago.”
Lawmakers praised the level of cooperation between the secretaries but complained about the pace of many of the reforms. The effort to create integrated electronic medical records, which began in 2009, will not be completed until 2017, noted Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
“American know-how put a man on the moon in less than a decade, but 50 years later we can’t produce single electronic medical database for our military and veterans in the same span of time,” Miller said.
Panetta said that with more troops returning to civilian life after service in Iraq and Afghanistan, many problems may worsen before improving.
“The system is going to be overwhelmed,” said Panetta. “Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s already overwhelmed.”
Shinseki said the VA might face some cuts from sequestration, despite earlier assurances from the White House that the department would be exempt. “VA is exempt from sequestration, except for administrative costs,” Shinseki said, adding that he did not have information on what those costs might be.
Miller called on the White House to release more information about the possible cuts.