Media Availability with Secretary Gates, Secretary Peake and Deputy Secretary Mansfield at the Pentagon
SEC. GATES: Afternoon. It's my pleasure to welcome Dr. Peake on his first visit to the Pentagon as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. In our meetings today the secretary and our deputy secretaries, Gordon England and Gordon Mansfield, discussed how VA and DOD are working together to better serve wounded warriors.
Our departments are making progress on the over 400 recommendations put forth by several major commissions and task forces, such as the Dole-Shalala commission, the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission, Independent Review Group. Specifically, led by the deputies, who meet weekly to track implementation and progress, the VA and DOD are improving outpatient care; tracking patients' long-term recovery through one system that is jointly administered by both DOD and VA; streamlining disability evaluation; creating a transparent process that requires one exam and one rating, binding by both DOD and VA, within current law; simplifying case management, assigning each wounded warrior a primary care manager, a nurse case manager and a squad leader for the Wounded Transition Brigade; and sharing electronic health data that are providing VA clinical information gathered from the battlefield.
Secretary Peake, I look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure the wounded service members receive the first-rate health care that they so much deserve.
SEC. PEAKE: Well, Secretary Gates, thank you very much. And -- you've just heard the secretary talk about how closely our departments are working together, and I am really pleased to see that. We've had -- the federal recovery coordinators are now in place and really starting to make a difference. I've been at Tampa, at our -- one of our poly-trauma rehab facilities, where they are already starting to notice the difference that that effort is making. We continue to seek ways, with our pilot program, to understand how best to improve our disability processing for our wounded warriors and transition them effectively into the VA system when that is necessary, or to move them back and forth, as we do sometimes in -- with those that are seriously wounded and injured.
I'd like to comment particularly about each of our services and the things that they have put in place to enhance the smoothness with which our wounded warriors are being able to make that transition from the Warrior Transition Brigades for the Army to the Safe Harbor program for the Navy, to the Marine for Life and Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment, to the Air Force Palace Heart program. All of these are important as we focus on doing the right thing by our wounded warriors, and I just am really pleased to see the progress that we are making and have a clear road ahead to making a difference.
So I would also like to comment specifically the -- the work that our deputies have done in bringing this to fruition. There's never, in my experience, been a closer cooperation between the departments, and a more vigorous exchange of information and ideas and problem-solving, than what we've got today. And I'm really appreciative of that.
And I thank you very much for the opportunity to be here, Secretary Gates.
SEC. GATES: We can take a couple of questions.
Q Today veterans from the current conflicts will still tell you, at least some of them will, that they feel lost in the bureaucracy, especially transitioning into VA.
Can you bring us up to date on how far, toward the goal of implementing those dozens and dozens of recommendations you are. Specifically, in the transition from the active service health care into VA?
SEC. GATES: Let me make a broad comment and then invite Secretary Peake and one of the two Gordons to comment.
This actually was something we spent a fair amount of time talking about at lunch. And that is, it's one thing to get the procedures and the policies fixed here in Washington. It's another to get it implemented right down to the local level, so that the individual soldier, sailor, airman or Marine is seeing the impact of this on the ground.
And I would tell you, my impression is that it's still uneven in terms of implementation at the local level. But we're trying to figure out ways in which we can better monitor this and make sure that what's being decided here in Washington is in fact being felt at the local level.
SEC. PEAKE: I think the secretary's exactly right.
You know, every individual is, in fact, an individual, has his or her own family situation to deal with, his or her own objectives in life. And so we want to really make sure that we understand that and deal with it.
So the federal recovery coordinators that are in place are starting to make a difference because they are also coordinating the many case managers that might deal with an amputation or a post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury or those kinds of issues, and bringing them together.
We are really working the notion of the relationship management, as we move our wounded or injured soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines into the VA system, and making sure that that case management continues, even if they go into the community.
So we have OIF\OEF coordinators at every one of our VA medical centers. And when I go around, and I've been to lots of different places in these first three months, I can tell you that they are very intimately associated and interested in following through with those individuals that come into those regions, when they finally do get back home or are even transiting for a period of time in the VA system.
Q I wanted to ask Secretary Mansfield a question, if I might.
Sir, given your remarkable credibility on this entire issue we're discussing here today, I'm wondering if you can tell us, on a personal level, when you speak with wounded veterans from this conflict, what you hear from them. What do they tell you that they feel their greatest need is as they move into the VA system?
MR. MANSFIELD: I think for the most part what I hear is that they -- most of these veterans are getting good care. There are a few cracks where we've had problems in the past, but we've tried to identify what those issues are. And keep in mind, this isn't simply just the military treatment facilities in the VA. We also have TRICARE issues here where some of these veterans wind up going off on their own for care in the civilian community, and that means that the VA has to be ready and responsible to manage their care no matter where they're getting it and make sure that we follow them from the start. And I think what you're hearing here is that we're more -- we are more front-ended now, and able to track these folks from where they need the assistance and the transfer for the care that they're getting.
Q What is the backlog at the VA right now? How much do you think it's going to cost to care for this -- the veterans of this war for the rest of their lives, and where will the money come from?
MR. MANSFIELD: Well, one of the things this country has always done is said that if you get injured in service to this country, we're going to take care of you. So we know that the administration and the Congress will appropriate the dollars that we need to spend to make sure that whatever care is needed will be provided, and that historically has been what the United States does for its soldiers.
Q Is there a backlog?
MR. MANSFIELD: Well, there's no such thing as a backlog. If a person needs a bed in a VA hospital, they get a bed in a VA hospital. If they're transferring out of a military treatment facility, our poly-trauma centers have beds that are open for that transfer, and there is no such thing as a backlog in our healthcare system.
MR. PEAKE: May I add just a comment on that? We have worked really hard to get down the waiting lists, and you know, if you look across the VA where we're taking care of 5.8 million unique patients a year, our waiting list is down to, like, 45,000 for more than 30 days. That's -- you know, it's really significantly dropping, and it'll be down to essentially nothing.
When you look at mental health, if you come in, you're going to be seen within 24 hours and have an evaluation within 14 days if that is required. So there have been some significant strides made just in the last few years because of the kind of work that the department has been focusing on to make sure that we are meeting the needs of these young men and women.
SEC. GATES: Thank you all very much.
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