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Hearing of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee - Back From the Battlefield: DoD and VA Collaboration to Assist Servicemembers Returning to Civilian Life


Location: Washington, DC

Thank you Chairman McKeon, and Ranking Members Smith and Filner, for working with me to assemble what is truly an historic hearing. According to a quick search of our records, this is the first time our full committees have jointly met for a hearing.

And never have we had the privilege of receiving testimony from two Cabinet Secretaries.

Mr. Chairman, I would suggest that we don't wait so long before our next joint hearing. If we're going to be asking VA and DOD to work hand-in-glove on these issues, our committees ought to be seen as doing the same.

Secretaries Panetta and Shinseki, welcome to you both. Your presence underscores the goal we all share that separating servicemembers have a "seamless transition" from military service to civilian life.

Let me quickly say that I only wish the Office of Management and Budget would improve its "seamless transition" in getting your testimony cleared and here to Congress on time…but that's just an aside. I'm thrilled you both are here this morning.

This Congress, the Veterans' Affairs Committee, or its Subcommittees, have held 13 oversight hearings on transition-related topics. These topics include improving the joint disability evaluation system your departments administer; ensuring the highest quality of health care for the severely wounded who can no longer continue on active duty; and ensuring servicemembers leaving the military are equipped to successfully enter the civilian labor force.

We have also focused on the tools your departments must use to effectively deliver these services in the 21st Century, such as electronic health records and other IT solutions.

The testimony we've received so far on these matters has been mixed. Although we've heard a number of initiatives, plans, and processes for improvement, and your testimony today echoes much of that, what we've not seen are clear, bottom-line results. Here are several examples:

First, notwithstanding the resources Congress has provided over the last several years to improve Iraq and Afghanistan veterans' access to effective mental health care, concerns remain. A VA psychologist testified that (quote) "…..VA clinicians are overrun with veterans in need. Mental Health Service Lines are pushing as many veterans into clinician schedules as possible to meet their performance measures, but those veterans are not getting effective treatment...." (end quote)

Second, five years ago Secretary Shalala and Senator Dole called for the establishment of an effective Federal Recovery Coordinator program for the seriously wounded and their families. But rather than the single point of contact they called for, VA and DOD created two separate programs. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that (quote) "…the 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 services may actually have the opposite effect…." (end quote).

Third, five years ago, then-Senator Barack Obama said (quote) "all of us are in agreement that we need to make the DoD [disability review] process less complex and better coordinated with the VA process," (end quote)…However, that process remains slow and complex. GAO reported that (quote) "Case processing times…have increased over time, and measures of servicemember satisfaction have shortcomings." (end quote). A witness from the Wounded Warrior Project stated that (quote) "[o]ur Wounded Warriors still encounter great difficulty in navigating a system they find to be highly complicated, difficult to understand, unnecessarily contentious, and often ponderously slow." (end quote).

Finally, despite repeated assertions about the need for VA and DoD to share medical and other information electronically, it seems the goalposts continue to move on when this will finally happen. GAO says VA and DoD still don't fully agree on key planning and operational elements that would ensure future success.

My hope is that raising these important issues to both of you will serve as a benchmark going forward by which all of us can hold you or your successors accountable. I know you both are committed to solving these problems. However, if what we've been doing isn't working, or isn't showing the measurable results we need, then let's work together to get on track.

Again, thank you for being here. I look forward to your testimony.

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