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Terri Moon Cronk, American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 6, 2012 – The secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs are partnering to build an integrated military and veteran support system, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said at a joint DOD-VA press conference at the Veterans Affairs Department here today.
Calling their departments' collaboration "a national security issue in many ways," Panetta said the agreements between DOD and VA "go to the heart of taking care of the people who fight for us, and ensure that we can recruit the very best force possible."
He added that if service members, veterans and their families are to get the kind of "seamless experience they deserve," the jobs of the secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs are to "make clear that there has got to be good cooperation" at all levels.
"Our close partnership has never been more important than it is today," Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said of his meeting with Panetta.
Based on guidance from President Barack Obama, the two departments are working on a revamped Transition Assistance Program, a joint electronic medical records system, joint acquisitions decisions, better access to mental health programs, and disability claims, among other issues, the secretaries said.
"Today, our veterans wait too long for the benefits they deserve and that's why, together, we're streamlining our processes ... between our departments," Shinseki said.
Overall, the DOD and VA collaboration for building an integrated support system is not about turf, but about serving the nation's veterans.
"I'm very encouraged that the level of collaboration between our two departments is better than it ever has been in the past," Panetta said.
"Yet we still have to reach much deeper," he said. "We owe it to [service members and veterans] to give them the tools to put their lives back together and pursue their goals, whether it's getting a good education, the best health care, excelling in a new career, serving in our government, or starting a business.
"Today, we discussed a number of steps to try to get our departments to work together in a further enhanced DOD-VA collaboration," Panetta continued. "In particular, our discussion focused on a redesigned Transition Assistance Program. The VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 mandated that all service members participate in TAP to prepare them for life after the military."
Shinseki said his department's support of DOD's revamped TAP, a presidential initiative, will create a "seamless and productive program that provides a warm hand-off from service member to new veteran status, to ensure all who have served are prepared to transition to civilian life and have access to the VA benefits and services they've earned."
Panetta said the new TAP is progressing well.
"We've got a large number of individuals in the military, and as we transition in these next few years in terms of our force structure we will have a lot of people going into this system," the defense secretary said. "I'm delighted to report we are very satisfied with the requirements of the VOW Act having been fully tested in terms of effectiveness at all 206 installations [it] is ready to go. We're on track to implement additional tracks for service members interested in education, technical training and entrepreneurship by October 2013."
Disability claims will also become more streamlined as the two departments work together, Panetta said.
"DOD has agreed in principle to conduct more detailed exit physicals for departing service members who are not immediately filing a VA disability claim," he said. "That helps expedite the process so that we don't have to go far back to their past to try to determine whether that claim is valid or not."
With this information sharing, VA will have the health information it needs from DOD to more quickly process a claim, Panetta explained.
"Today, Secretary Shinseki and I agreed to develop a joint DOD-VA plan for accelerating the program to try to integrate our health care systems. We want to meet or beat the schedule we've established as targets," the defense secretary said. "We've asked for the plan to be presented to us by early January. We've got to do everything we can to move this on a more expeditious path."
Improved mental health service access is expected to be presented to the president as a joint recommendation by the two departments by the end of February 2013, he said.
Panetta expressed his concern over the rate of suicide among military members and veterans.
"It's a terrible challenge that we are dealing with, and we have got to do everything we can between DOD and the VA to ensure our systems are equipped to give our people the help they need to deal with these unique circumstances," he said.
Panetta applauded the work of health care professionals who treat service members, veterans and families, and also recognized warfighters.
"America's men and women in uniform put their lives on the line every day to keep this country safe. We owe it to those who fight for us to fight for them," the defense secretary said. "Programs to help our warriors were developed out of the best intentions but too often they fall victim to red tape, bureaucracy and intransigence.
“We, as secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs, deeply believe that we can and we will do better,” he continued, “and we will accept nothing less than the best services that we can provide for those who serve this country."