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Secretary Hagel Remarks at a Roundtable Discussion on the Veterans Affairs Claims Backlog with the Senate Appropriations Committee

As Prepared for Delivery by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Washington D.C., Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Senator Mikulski, members of the committee, thank you for this opportunity to address an important issue, and for your strong commitment to our service members, veterans, and their families. 

I want to also thank my friend and colleague Secretary Shinseki for his leadership and tireless efforts on behalf of our veterans and their families.

I’m also joined by my DoD colleagues, the Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Jessica Wright, and Jim Neighbors, who directs our DoD/VA Collaboration Office.  They have been deeply involved in the issues we will discuss today and have responsibility for the DoD programs and offices which directly relate to DoD’s collaboration with VA.

DoD and VA both work to provide continuous, accessible quality health care for America’s active duty military and its veterans.  At DoD, our responsibility is ensure that those who are serving the country have quality care throughout their career.  When a service member’s status changes from active duty to veteran, DoD also has a responsibility to ensure these service members are seamlessly, efficiently, and quickly transitioned to the care of Veterans Affairs – including all of their records. 

I have listened carefully to DoD’s health care providers – its doctors, nurses, and clinicians at Walter Reed and other DoD health care facilities.  I’ve asked them, what do you need to give our active duty military consistent and accessible quality health care?  Their input is essential to ensuring quality care, because they are the providers and we must know what they need to ensure this care.

During the first Reagan Administration I was Deputy Administrator of the Veterans Administration and led efforts to computerize all claims of our veterans, especially our Vietnam veterans whose claims were often connected to Agent Orange exposure.  So I understand and greatly appreciate Secretary Shinseki’s leadership in expanding the availability of benefits for Vietnam veterans with service-connected diseases.  Under his leadership, the VA has also made it easier for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress to qualify for benefits.  He has also expanded the availability of benefits to Gulf War veterans.

As a former VA leader, Senator and veteran I have been involved in veterans issues for many years, and have some understanding and appreciation of the complications and difficulties of this backlog issue.  One difficulty is that the majority of the backlog numbers represents veterans who served prior to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Meaning that veterans records from as far back as World War II are many times not available, or easily accessible, or have been lost.

The Department of Defense is committed to doing everything it can to continue to work with the VA in processing claims speedily and efficiently to reduce this backlog.  To address and help fix this problem, DoD has recently initiated several important actions:

  • In January, DoD sent a team of experts to work in the Veterans Benefits Administration.  This team is working side by side with VBA personnel to analyze the disability claims backlog and assist VA in processing claims.
  • DoD recently began to provide VBA personnel with the ability to log in directly to our electronic medical records system, AHLTA, so that VA can process claims more quickly than under the current system for transferring records.
  • Similarly, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service provides accounts for VBA claims processors to directly access an individual’s financial and service information.

Although service members transitioning under the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) are not counted under the current backlog, in order to speed up the processing of these claims DoD provided 15 soldiers to the VA site in Seattle, WA. These soldiers are assisting in administrative tasks, freeing up VA adjudicators to focus on evaluating IDES claims.

Because a very large percentage of VA backlog claims are from veterans who served prior to Iraq and Afghanistan, DoD and VA are taking steps to ensure that those currently serving will not face a similar backlog in the future.  Specific actions include:

  • Certifying service treatment records so that claims processors know not to hold up processing to request additional records.
  • Holding data sharing summits every six weeks to look for ways to improve our practices.
  • Conducting separation health assessments to establish baseline medical conditions, helping to speed future disability benefits claims.
  • We are also improving the format of our service treatment records so that they are portable and can be quickly scanned by other users.

While these efforts won’t reduce the current backlog, they will ensure that future generations of transitioning service members won’t experience these challenges.

The centerpiece of DoD’s work is the integrated electronic health record (iEHR) program, which is a priority for President Obama, Secretary Shinseki and me – and I know for the Congress as well.  As we work to modernize our electronic health record system, DoD remains committed to our shared goal of achieving full interoperability of health care records.  This is a complex and expensive undertaking.  It is critical that we get it right.

Yesterday, I directed the Department to move ahead with a best value competitive process to select the core applications that DoD will use to modernize our legacy electronic health record system.  This will be done using open standards and systems in a way that ensures complete data interoperability with VA. 

As you know, VA made a decision to modernize around its legacy VISTA records system.  Given the VA’s installed base, trained workforce, and in-house expertise, choosing VISTA was a good approach for VA.  DoD faces a different situation.  As I’ve said, DoD has a responsibility to ensure that our active duty military receives the best medical care we can provide while they are in the service of our country. And as I’ve said, we also have a responsibility to ensure that this same quality health care is carried through to the end of service members active duty careers when their status changes from active duty to veteran. 

Our service members and veterans, and their families, expect and deserve a seamless system to administer the benefits they have earned.  Secretary Shinseki and I will continue to work closely together, in partnership with Congress, to deliver on that promise.

Thank you.

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