Military-to-civilian transition still a challenge, VA and defense chiefs say

Rebecca Cohen

Layers of bureaucracy have bogged down efforts by the federal government to help troops transition to civilian life, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki told Congress on Wednesday.

The two departments are collaborating more successfully than ever, Panetta said at a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and House Veterans Affairs committees. But projects such as integrating the two departments’ electronic health records have taken an unacceptably long time, he said.

“While we’re pleased with the progress made to date . . . we know we have a responsibility to better harmonize our departments,” Shinseki said.

Better coordination could help the departments address high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness and suicide among veterans, Shinseki said.

More than 100 veteran deaths this year have been ruled suicides, and more than 100 more are being investigated as such, Panetta said – a rate of almost one per day.

“Our warriors are trained not to fail on the battlefield,” Panetta said. “We must be committed not to fail them on the home front.”

Shinseki and Panetta announced in May that they expect to have a joint health records system in place by 2017. But Congress mandated such a system more than 10 years ago, said Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif. He asked the two secretaries what has caused the delay.

Shinseki said he and Panetta have met five times in the past 10 months to discuss the issue. Disagreements over which proprietary contractor to use slowed down the process, he said. Resistance to change in both departments has been problematic as well, Panetta added.

Renovations to the military’s transition assistance program announced Monday by President Barack Obama will improve conditions for veterans, Panetta said. The revamp includes extending the program’s current three-day series of workshops to eight days and providing more individualized career counseling.

Unemployment for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan dropped to 9.5 percent in June, but it is still higher than the national average of 8.2 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. McKeon urged Shinseki and Panetta to address the veteran unemployment rate as quickly as possible.

“The idea that our service members could go from the front lines to the unemployment lines is unacceptable,” McKeon said.

Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., asked whether the eight-day program would be mandatory. Service members already have trouble getting permission to take time off for the three-day program, he said.

Pilot programs will be conducted to determine that, Panetta said.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., suggested the program should be even longer: between 10 and 12 weeks, or the same length as boot camp. That would allow for adequate medical evaluation and counseling, he said.

The Defense and Veteran Affairs departments are working together on other projects as well, Shinseki said. Since 2009, the departments have been co-operating on a veteran crisis hotline. It has been responsible for an average of 300 admissions a month into VA health care facilities, Shinseki said.

Also Wednesday, Shinseki also told lawmakers that if Congress fails to decrease the budget deficit by the end of the year and triggers sequestration – a process in which federal agencies face automatic budget reductions – the VA could experience cuts.

The White House Office of Management and Budget said in April that "all programs administered by the VA" would be exempt from sequestration. On Monday, Obama told members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars that veterans benefits would be exempt.

Shinseki testified, though, that the exemption does not include administrative costs.

Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., asked what “administrative costs” meant and whether the cuts would include measures such as closing veterans hospitals. Shinseki said he did not have enough information to answer.

An OMB spokeswoman said Wednesday afternoon that the administration “has not yet addressed the applicability of the sequester” to VA administrative expenses.

A Government Accountability Office report in May said that administrative costs “may be subject” to sequestration.

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