WASHINGTON – Layers of bureaucracy have bogged down efforts by the federal government to help troops transition to civilian life, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki told Congress on Wednesday.
The two departments are collaborating more successfully than ever, Panetta said at a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and House Veterans Affairs committees. But projects such as integrating the two departments’ electronic health records have taken an unacceptably long time, he said.
“While we’re pleased with the progress made to date we know we have a responsibility to better harmonize our departments,” Shinseki said.
Better coordination could help the departments address high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness and suicide among veterans, Shinseki said.
More than 100 veteran deaths this year have been ruled suicides, and more than 100 others are being investigated as such, Panetta said – a rate of almost one per day.
“Our warriors are trained not to fail on the battlefield,” Panetta said. “We must be committed not to fail them on the home front.”
Shinseki and Panetta announced in May that they expect to have a joint health records system in place by 2017. But Congress mandated such a system more than 10 years ago, said Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif. He asked the two secretaries what has caused the delay.
Shinseki said he and Panetta have met five times in the past 10 months to discuss the issue. Disagreements over which proprietary contractor to use slowed down the process, he said. Resistance to change in both departments has been problematic as well, Panetta added.
Renovations to the military’s transition assistance program announced Monday by President Barack Obama will improve conditions for veterans, Panetta said. The revamp includes extending the program’s current three-day series of workshops to eight days and providing more individualized career counseling.
Unemployment for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan dropped to 9.5 percent in June, but is still higher than the national average of 8.2 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. McKeon urged Shinseki and Panetta to address the veteran unemployment rate as quickly as possible.
“The idea that our service members could go from the front lines to the unemployment lines is unacceptable,” McKeon said.