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Remarks by Secretary of Defense Panetta and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Shinseki at the James Lovell Federal Health Care Center

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki
May 21, 2012

             SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: Good afternoon. It's a -- it's a great pleasure to be here in Chicago, and in particular to be here at the James Lovell Health Center. I'm delighted to have the opportunity to join Secretary Shinseki on this visit to this very impressive facility that we have here. 

            Over the past two days, as many of you know, world leaders have gathered in Chicago to affirm our commitment to finishing the job right in Afghanistan. This afternoon, Secretary Shinseki and I are coming together to affirm what in many ways is an equally important commitment -- a commitment to care for and to honor those who have protected our nation by serving it in uniform. 

            In order to meet our sacred responsibilities to this next greatest generation, we are going to have to fully leverage the capabilities and strengths of both of our departments. And we must break down the barriers between our departments that prevent us from partnering to deliver the highest-quality care to those who need it. 

            There is perhaps no more fitting place for us to come together to affirm this commitment than this health care center, the James Lovell Center. By the way, James Lovell is here and joining us -- Jim. That's great. Great to -- you know, it's kind of fun to meet somebody -- (chuckles) -- you know, you watch movies about. And it's great. And it's a thrill to have you here. 

            It's -- this center is the first-of-a-kind partnership between our two departments. This really is a unique demonstration effort to try to bring together the DOD and VA systems. It brings all medical care together into a fully integrated facility that serves recruits, that serves service members, that serves military retirees, dependents and veterans, all right here in one facility. 

            This facility is helping us chart the course for the future, for the future delivery of federal health care. This is really a very unique effort that hopefully will take us into the future. It is bringing our two departments closer together. And as a result, it's helping us to provide better patient-centered care and services. 

            Eric and I saw what's happening here firsthand today. We had the opportunity to meet with doctors, to meet with nurses, to meet with health care professionals who briefed us on the practical benefits that this kind of close collaboration between our two departments has brought to health care delivery. And we also saw the challenges that remain to forging more effective synergies between DOD and the VA health systems. 

            Perhaps the most notable obstacle -- (audio break) -- benefits of this close collaboration is the lack of a shared health care record system between our two departments. In response to a challenge issued by the president three years ago, DOD and VA have been working steadily to increase the amount of health information that's shared between our two departments. The centerpiece has been our effort to build an integrated electronic health record, a single common health record for service members and veterans that can be accessed at any DOD and VA medical facility. 

            Today I want to affirm that we are fully committed to putting this system, which will be the world's largest electronic health record system -- to putting it in place across the nation in 2017. I'd also like to announce the important new missions and milestones in this effort that we're setting in 2014. We're going to be rolling out initial capabilities for this kind of integrated system at two test sites: San Antonio, Texas, and Hampton Roads, Virginia. 

            Implementing this new system in this way will help us make sure that we are doing it right and that we have time to adjust based on the experience in the field. 

            Ultimately our efforts to deliver the best care possible depends not only on the quality of our systems and data but on the dedication of health care professionals. 

            And I'd like to close by thanking all of the doctors, all the nurses -- my wife had a chance to be here; she was a nurse, and she knows the kind of dedication that it takes to be able to deliver good care. I want to commend all of the health care professionals and the support staff that are here at North Chicago and across the country. All of them have made a commitment to helping us build the best health care system possible. Just like the people they care for, these dedicated health care professionals serve this country and serve all of us. And they have my deepest respect and the gratitude of the American people. 

            Our men and women in uniform serve this country by putting their lives on the line every day in order to make sure that they protect us. That's what they do. And that's why we're proud of them, because they're willing to do that. 

            Our duty -- our duty is to make sure we protect them by giving them the best health care we can. If we can do that, then I think both they and us can say proudly that we're doing everything we can to protect America and to give our children a better life.  

            Thank you very much. (Applause.) 

            SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS ERIC SHINSEKI: Thank you, Secretary Panetta. It's great to be here with you at -- and I say our Lovell Federal Health Care Center; we both have a great interest in this. 

            My thanks to the VA and DOD professionals who work here side by side every day, caring for veterans, service members, retirees and family members. Today on the tour that we just took, those professionals shared with us their significant insights into how VA and DOD have improved care through our closer collaboration. But they also shared with us how much more we can do together. 

            In 2009, as Secretary Panetta points out, President Obama outlined a visionary goal for the future of electronic health and benefits data sharing: VLER, V-L-E-R, the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record. 

            The president understands our immense obligation to the men and women who wear and have worn the uniforms of our nation. He gets it. He gets it down deep where it counts. Whenever the last combatant returns home from Afghanistan, VA's requirements to care for those who have borne the battle will continue to grow for a decade or more after the end of the mission. We have the responsibility and the opportunity now to anticipate the needs of returning veterans and to guarantee them a seamless transition from service member to veteran status. And that's why this demonstration here at Lovell is so very important. 

            Secretary Panetta and I have committed to a single common joint integrated electronic health record -- each of those words means something -- one that is open in architecture and nonproprietary in design to expand information sharing, eliminate gaps between our two robust health care systems. This is key to seamlessness, critical to enhancing quality of health care and essential to controlling costs. 

            In 2014 we intend to field initial operating capabilities, as the secretary has pointed out, of the IEHR, the Integrated Electronic Health Record, in San Antonio, Texas, and Hampton Roads, Virginia. IEHR is a major component of VLER, that Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record that the president envisioned in 2009. 

            IEHR is a significant challenge, and I think the folks who work here can provide you insights on that. 

            But as they say in central Texas, where I've spent a little bit of time, you can't wring your hands and roll your sleeves up at the same time. You have to choose one or the other. Between VA and DOD, we've rolled our sleeves up. And that's what these dedicated professionals do every day here at Lovell Federal Health Care Center. 

            Secretary Panetta and I are well-served by all of the professionals in both of our departments who care deeply about our missions and the people who deliver them. And we're happy to take some of your questions. Thank you. (Applause.) 

            Q: I had a question about Pakistan and also a question about the joint -- (off mic). For Secretary Panetta, is it -- is there a possibility there could be a initial agreement with Pakistan reached on the ground supply lines? And what's your big takeaway from their participation in this event? I mean, it disappointed many people that there wasn't more progress. 

            And to Secretary Shinseki, if possible, could you explain a bit why -- 2017 is after the next administration, and after that administration, so it's a still long way out. Could you just explain a bit why 2017 is the date? Thanks. 

            SEC. PANETTA: I think -- I think it was -- it was positive that President Zardari did come to the NATO summit. And we are continuing to negotiate with the Pakistanis to try to see if we can find a resolution that will allow us to open up the GLOCs. 

            We -- you know, we still have a ways to go, but I think the good news is that we are negotiating and that we are making some progress. It is extremely important that ultimately we be able to open up those lines of communication and transport so that we can expedite the assistance that needs to go to our men and women in uniform who are fighting the battle. 

            But at this stage, I guess I would say that I feel a lot more positive about the effort to try to see if we can find a resolution to that challenge. 

            SEC. SHINSEKI: Two large, robust health care systems -- maybe the two largest in the world; certainly two largest in this country. And trying to bring those two systems together in a way that doesn't sacrifice quality or safety -- we have to get it right. And the standard is to do it safely and maintain the quality that each of us has right now. 

            We'll go as fast as we can without accepting, you know, risk that's not tolerable. 2017 is a target. We're going to begin rolling out the initial capabilities of iEHR in 2014 at those two sites we indicated. If we can go faster, we will. But quality and safety are the standards we measure ourselves by. 

            Q: Question for Secretary Panetta. Dave Savini with CBS here in Chicago. After discussions with Pakistan and NATO allies, what remains your biggest concern for the Afghanistan transition? 

            SEC. PANETTA: Well, I -- you know, this is a -- this is a big undertaking. I think the good news that came out of the NATO conference is that every nation that is involved in this effort -- and there were 50 nations around the table today that committed themselves to the plan that's been laid out by General Allen. 

            And that -- you know, we're very confident that General Allen has put the right plan in place in order to make the transition that is at the heart of the mission in Afghanistan, which is to have an Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future. 

            The -- there are challenges, however. And you know, I think we understand that the biggest challenge is a Taliban that is resilient, that is going to continue to fight even though they've been weakened -- and I think the levels of violence are down -- that they're going to continue to conduct attacks. And we are going to have to confront them. And I have every confidence that we can. I have every confidence that the Afghan army can respond and be part of that effort effectively. But we are still dealing with a resilient enemy that in many ways still has a safe haven in Pakistan. And that, I think, represents the greatest threat that we're facing. 

            STAFF: (Off mic.) 

            Q: (Off mic) -- for Secretary Panetta. I was outside of -- at the protests yesterday and witnessed about 30 war veterans throw their medals back, throw them away in protest of NATO and handling of past wars. What's your reaction to hear them throwing their medals away? 

            SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, Eric Shinseki served in the military. I served in the military. Millions of men and women have served this country in uniform. Many of them have fought and died for the liberties and freedoms that we enjoy in this country. 

            And one of those liberties and freedoms is the ability to demonstrate. 

            And you know, I think, for me, especially in this job, the greatest satisfaction I have is that there are men and women who are willing every day to put their lives on the line in order to try to protect this country and protect our freedoms. That's what we ought to focus on. 

            STAFF: (Off mic.) Thank you very much -- (off mic). Secretary -- (off mic). (Applause.)