SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS ERIC SHINSEKI: Thank you.
First, let me thank Secretary Panetta for his unwavering support both to those of us here in VA, but most importantly, the men and women who wear and have worn the uniforms of our nation. Our close partnership, this meeting that we had today, on their behalf has never been more important than it is today.
As we enter the holiday season, I want to thank those men and women who will spend these holidays away from their families defending our nation. We're all very grateful for their service and their sacrifice.
As Leon and I have discussed, very little of what we do here in VA originates here. Most of what we work on originates in DOD and that's why achieving our priorities at VA requires this close and collaborative working relationship.
We have more to do. With President Obama's strong support and guidance, we have brought our two departments closer together than ever before. We've underwritten joint VA-DOD medical facilities where they make sense. We've begun harmonizing our acquisition decisions. We've committed both departments to a single, common, joint, integrated electronic health record, the iEHR [integrated electronic health record], whichwill be open in architecture and non-proprietary in design.
Today, veterans wait too long to receive the benefits they have earned, and that's why together we're streamlining our processes, sharing more information between our departments. At VA we've also supported DOD's implementation of the president's initiative to redesign the transition assistance program so that it is mandatory, seamless and productive.
The new program provides a warm handoff from service member to veterans status, to ensure all who served are prepared to transition in to civilian life and that they have access to VA benefits and services they've earned.
With his executive order to improve access to mental health services, President Obama continues to demonstrate that his commitment to veterans is genuine and runs deep. Leon and I are working side by side to ensure that service members and veterans receive the care they've earned.
And Secretary Panetta, once again thank you for your leadership and your partnership. And I say it all the time, veterans couldn't have a stronger ally in their corner than you.
So, over to you.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA: Thank you.
Thank you very much, Rick. I appreciate that very much and appreciate your friendship and your cooperation in this -- in this effort to do everything we can to bring our departments together to make sure that we serve those that serve this country.
I'm please to have this opportunity to be here again at the Department of Veteran's Affairs. This is part of our effort at regular consultations to make sure that our efforts to create a seamless approach with regards to our veterans is working.
We are trying to build as the president asked us to build an integrated military and veteran support system. Make no mistake this is a real challenge. This is not something that comes easy to two very large departments, to bureaucracies that have their own rules and their own regulations, but it is important to get them to work together.
If service members, if veterans and their families are to get the kind of seamless experience that hey deserve, then our job Secretary of Veteran's Affairs, and Secretary of Defense -- our job is to make very clear that there has got to be good cooperation at all levels.
This effort cannot be about turf. It's got to be about serving our veterans. I'm very encouraged that at the level of collaboration between our two departments I believe is better than it ever has been in the past, yet we still have to reach much deeper into a level of collaboration that will meet the needs of our veterans.
We owe it to them to give them the tools they need to put their lives back together, and pursue their goals, whether it's getting a good education, whether it's getting the best health care, whether it's excelling in a new career, whether it's serving in government, whether it's starting a business.
As I've said before, this is -- this is in many ways a national security issue. It goes to the heart of taking care of the people that fight for us. And ensuring that we can then recruit the very best force that's possible.
Part of that is making sure that (inaudible) maintain faith with our troops, and with their families. You have to give them confidence that they've got world class support system that they've earned when they came into the military.
Today, Rick and I discussed a number of steps to try to get our departments to work together to further enhance DOD-VA collaboration, and in particular our discussion focused on a redesign transition assistance program, or the TAP [Transition Assistance Program] program.
The Vow to Hire Heroes Act mandated that all service members participate in the TAP program in order to prepare them for life after the military. We've got a large number of -- of individuals in the military, you know, as we transition over these next few years in terms of our force structure, we're going to have a lot of people going into this system.
I'm delighted to report that we're very satisfied with that the requirements of the Vow Act having been fully tested in terms of effectiveness at all 206 installations is ready to go. We're on track to implement additional tracks for service members interested in education and technical training and entrepreneurship by October 2013.
Working together, DOD and VA are also doing everything we can to streamline the disability claims process. This is one of the priorities for the president and it's a priority for us. One of the challenges of the Department of Veteran's Affairs that they've had to face is handling those claims filed well after veterans have departed from service.
To try to address this challenge, DOD has agreed in principle to conduct more detailed exit physicals for departing service members who are not immediately filing a VA disability claim.
And, what that does, frankly, is it -- it helps expedite the process, so that we don't have to go far back into their past to try to determine whether that claim is valid or not. This will help ensure that if a service member wants to file a claim in the future, the VA will have the health information they need from DOD at their finger tips, and to more quickly process that claim.
We also discussed something that is a -- is a tough challenge for both departments, which is an electronic health care record integration. The ability to bring that information together, across our two departments is extremely important for our medical professionals in order to provide the best care possible.
This is obviously a challenging effort. This is really a tough effort, but we're continuing to work at it and we're confronting technical and bureaucratic challenges head-on.
Today, both Secretary Shinseki and I agree to develop a joint DOD- VA plan for accelerating this program, to try to integrate our health care systems. And what we said is that we want to be able to meet or beat the schedule that we've established as targets here. We've asked that that plan be presented to us by early January. We've got to do everything we can to move this on a more expeditious path.
Rick and I discussed President Obama's executive order to improve access to mental health care services as well for veterans and service members and military families. In October of this year at the Pentagon, I had a very positive meeting with military and veteran NGO members. And I promised them that I would work with Secretary Shinseki to discuss diagnosis, access to mental health outcomes for the hidden wounds of war. And that's exactly what we've been doing. We did it again today. I'm pleased that we'll be ready to provide the president our joint recommendations in this area within the next three months, by the end of February 2013.
We also know that we're dealing with the problem of suicide in the military and among our veterans. It's a terrible, terrible challenge that we are dealing with. And we have got to do everything we can, between DOD and VA, to ensure that our systems are equipped to give our people the help they need in order to deal with these unique circumstances that we're confronting.
And let me finally close by applauding the dedicated DOD and VA professionals that do care for our troops, for our veterans and for the families. They work hard every day. They are part of one family. We support one another. And I think we've strengthened our bond between our two departments. And I'm grateful for Rick's vision and his leadership in supporting those that, as I said, have served this country.
America's men and women in uniform, as I said, put their lives on the line every day in order to keep this country safe. We owe it to those that fight for us to fight for them. Programs to help our warriors were developed out of the best intentions, but too often they fall victim to red tape; too often they fall victim to bureaucracy and intransigence.
And the secretary of veterans affairs and the secretary of defense deeply believe that we can and we will do better. We will accept nothing less than the best services we can provide for those that serve this country.
STAFF: Thank you, gentlemen.
Now, we're going to have a time for a few questions from both the VA and DOD press corps. We'll volley back and forth between myself and George, so on the VA side.
Q: Yes. Secretaries, you mentioned the long-term detailed (inaudible) physicals and some of the things you're going to do to address the backlog benefit. But are there any plans to deal with the current problems -- the more immediate problems we've seen over the last year with increased wait times and the increased backlog? Or are all the plans long-term, far off in the future solutions?
SEC. SHINSEKI: I would say that we have actions in progress now -- I think you may be familiar with -- our veterans benefits management system, automation of what has to this point been a paper-bound process; why in this department where we have one of the country's best electronic health records and in our benefits administration, we're paper-bound.
So, we've been developing this tool for the last two years. It's in the process of being fielded now. It'll be at 18 of our regional offices before the end of December. And we'll be fully fielded with this automation system in 2013. That puts us on track to eliminate the backlog as we have indicated we would in 2015.
In the meantime, this tremendous partnership with DOD will begin to affect the claims that are about to be created, because we have agreed to link up both our personnel and our medical databases so that there isn't this search for information in the future.
Q: (inaudible) for Secretary Panetta -- Secretary Shinseki.
Can you help us understand your assessment if the country goes off the fiscal cliff, if there is sequestration the impact on the Afghanistan-Iraq generation of veterans, those even getting out now, albeit maybe not a direct impact, your assessment of how it will impact them?
But, first to you Secretary Panetta, since President Obama made his statement about Syria and chemical weapons again, and Secretary Clinton did, we understand the redline, but the world this week certainly growing concern about Syria's potential use of chemical weapons.
Can we ask you, your -- your view on this? How concerned are you? How imminent are your concerns? And should Assad believe that his weapons are sheltered and safe from potential -- a potential response, a potential military action by anyone?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, Barbara, without -- without commenting on the specific intelligence that we have with regards to these chemical weapons, I think there is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned. That, as the opposition advances, in particular in Damascus, that the -- the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons.
The whole world is watching. The whole world's watching very closely, and the President of the United States has made very clear that there will be consequences, there will be consequences if the Assad regime makes a terrible mistake by using these chemical weapons on their own people.
I'm not going to speculate or comment on what those potential consequences would be, but I think it's fair enough to say that their use of those weapons would cross a red line for us.
SEC. PANETTA: The intelligence that we have raises serious concerns that this is being considered.
SEC. SHINSEKI: Barbara, I think you know that the president's decided that the -- the Department of Veterans Affairs is exempted from sequestration. I would also say while we, you know, look at that as great news, because the president has also grown our budget over the last four years, so that gives us opportunity to take care of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are leaving the force.
But, the reason we meet frequently -- I think this is our tenth meeting between the secretary of defense and secretary of veterans affairs in something like the last 20, 22 months -- is because we establish that there is a relationship between our two departments that may not exist between other departments.
And, as I indicated, very little of what we work on here originates here, and, therefore, this collaboration is important. So, if Leon is dealing with issues of sequestration I am concerned as well, because of the likely impact that would have on -- on veterans as they transition out of DOD. Even though the VA piece of this has been exempted.
SEC. SHINSEKI: Well, that's -- that's the reason we are meeting is to ensure that -- that transition. We've anticipated the requirements we think in the next you know several years is going to be a significant number of people leaving.
Our meetings are all about focusing on making sure that those transitions are seamless -- as seamless as we can make it -- in time, truly seamless, so that an individual who is raising their right hand and taking the oath of allegiance, swearing into the military today. When they choose to leave a few years down the road, whether it's three or 20, that those records are already resident in the VA system.
SEC. PANETTA: Barbara, there's -- look, there is -- there is no question that if sequestration happens, it will impact on those who are coming home. It's going to impact on what we're going to be able to provide them. These cuts are across the board under this meat-axe approach that was developed in the sequestration formula. And it is going to have a serious impact in terms of those coming home, the programs that serve them, the support system that we have, not only for them, but for their families.
It's for that reason, obviously, that our continuing hope is that the leadership in this country comes together and finds a -- finds an agreement that avoids this -- this deficit cliff that we're hanging on.
STAFF: Thank you.
From the VA?
Q: (inaudible) Military Times. So, one of the big problems with the long number of disability claims is the medical records issue. Secretary Shinseki discussed the long-term fix, which is to improve the medical records. And Secretary Panetta, you described something that helps people still in the service by having better physicals so that when they leave the service, we'll have a better record of what their actual problems are.
What do you do for the people in the middle -- the hundreds of thousands of people who are -- who have pending claims now and they are being postponed because of that fact that the medical records either don't exist or are too complicated to come by, so that you can't prove or disprove whether they have a disability? Is there any hope for them in what the two of you are working on?
SEC. SHINSEKI: Yes, I think our production demonstrates we are working these cases where the records aren't immediately available. We go through onerous effort to develop them so that we have a fully developed claim and can make judgments. We're doing that at a rate of about a million claims a year. The challenge for us we've got a million-plus in return coming in the door.
And that's why this automation system called VBMS, Veterans Benefits Management System, is key to our ability to deal with those numbers. And we'll continue to push a million claims out the door, and hopefully with VBMS, we'll increase that production, and so we get control of the numbers. We have both a short-term and a long-term set of solutions here.
But again, this is why this -- these meetings and this relationship is -- is important.
Q: Hi, and to both secretaries, I have a question on mental health. The -- the joint DOD-VA guidance on treating veterans with PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] has very kind of tough controls in there for use of opiates and use of benzodiazepines. How concerned are you that those guidelines aren't always being followed at the clinical level between patient and doctor? And what kind of data are you seeing to support the fact that these treatments are -- or actually that these guidelines are being followed?
And to Secretary Panetta, just a quick follow-up on Barbara's question. Given those serious concerns, would it be correct to assume that there's no thinking about preemptive action? Or, I mean, is the trigger really just using these weapons? Or could intelligence trigger something?
SEC. SHINSEKI: Let me go at the discussion about opiates, or any of the addictive drugs. Again, this is why this relationship is important, because there is a start-point for any of these issues and it comes down to our being courageous enough to ask ourselves whether we have the right approach on medication, whether we over-medicate. And we're going to answer those questions.
I have a personal opinion here, but I -- I would like to see the results of the research. But it will be joint effort between the DOD medical community and the VA medical community, so we have a comprehensive strategy on how to deal with it.
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I think that, you know, just on that issue alone, the, you know, dealing with this problem, obviously it involves, you know, providing some prescription drugs. But at the same time, it should also provide a series of other ways to try to assist people that are facing this problem -- consultation, other assistance, other guidance to try to help people; you know, the ability of others to spot these problems, whether it's depression or whether it's, you know, drug addiction or whatever might contribute to the problems that they're confronting.
But clearly, I think, you know, we want to make sure that -- that the prescriptions that are being provided are the ones that are sufficient to meet the problem and don't go beyond that.
On the -- on the issue related to Syria, there's really not much more to be said other than, you know, that the president has made very clear that -- that the Assad regime ought not to make the mistake of thinking that somehow it can use chemical weapons on its -- on their own people and get away with that. There will be consequences.
STAFF: Thank you, everyone.
Secretary Shinseki, thank you for (inaudible) us today.
SEC. SHINSEKI: Thank you, everybody.