Federal agencies need to do a better job of meeting the needs of as many as 1 million troops who will leave the military by 2017, U.S. lawmakers said today.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has struggled to ease a backlog in disability claims and to create a system shifting health records from the Pentagon, U.S. Representative Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said at a hearing today.
Miller and Representative Buck McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said they are concerned about the effects of those shortcomings as the Pentagon cuts the number of active-duty troops, creating more than 100,000 new veterans each year.
“The transition that service members experience from active service into civilian life must be improved,” McKeon said at a joint hearing of the committees.
“Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know that the hardships don’t end when they leave the war zone.” he said. “We in Congress are painfully aware that at this very moment, 26,000 service members are in the midst of the disability evaluation process and are forced to wait over 400 days on average before they can return home to their communities.”
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta both testified at today’s hearing.
“While there is no doubt that we are working together better than ever before, it is clear there is much more to do,” Panetta testified.
Panetta told lawmakers that more needed to be done to reduce the number of military suicides and the stigma associated with mental-health treatment. The Pentagon also needs “increased leadership in the field” to spot potential problems, he said.
One issue is that the military doesn’t have enough caregivers to address the shortfalls in mental health care, Panetta said.
Lawmakers also expressed concerns about reports from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Lawmakers that a military hospital altered mental health diagnoses to remove some findings of post-traumatic stress.
The Pentagon is investigating how all military hospitals are handling such cases, Panetta said. “It is important to determine why someone would get this diagnosis and then it would be downgraded,” he said.
As troops withdrew from Iraq, the number of disability cases filed with the VA has jumped 48 percent during the past four years to 1.3 million in 2011. The U.S. has also pulled troops from Afghanistan, with plans to leave the country at the end of 2014.
The veterans agency is still working to reduce the number of pending disability claims, Shinseki said. “It’s a big number, nearly 900,000 by my count,” he told lawmakers.
Most of the claims have taken longer than the agency’s 125- day target for processing, Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, testified last week before a House oversight subcommittee.
The delays can mean disabled veterans aren’t receiving financial payments as well as some medical treatments, said Ramsey Sulayman, the legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a New York-based advocacy group.
“If people who have serious disabilities aren’t receiving that even for a couple months it would be pretty significant, and in some cases, it’s more than a year,” Sulayman said in a phone interview. “It can lead to a lot of other things: homelessness, mental health issues, chronic unemployment.”
The VA provides health care to about 6 million veterans, and the Defense Department provides health care to more than 9.6 million active-duty service members, their families and beneficiaries.
The agencies, which operate two of the largest health-care systems in the country, have faced criticism for running separate electronic health-records networks that serve an overlapping population of U.S. military personnel and veterans.
The new system won’t be fully operational until 2017, eight years after the Obama administration directed the agencies to create the system.
“Why can we put a man on the moon in eight years, and yet we’re not starting from ground zero on integrated health records and we’re still not there?” Miller asked.
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