Panetta: Defense, VA must ‘kick ass’ to help military, veterans

WASHINGTON (AP) — Bureaucratic foot dragging and infighting is slowing urgently needed programs for America’s veterans and wounded troops and officials have to get the problem fixed, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress on Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta listens at left as Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta listens at left as Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Panetta was appearing at congressional hearing to explain what progress had been made in coordinating programs at the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The two massive departments oversee health care and other programs for troops during their service and later when they leave and become veterans.

Panetta testified with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki before a rare joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and Veterans Affairs Committee.

Lawmakers ticked off complaints and questions about homeless veterans, rising troop suicides, vet unemployment and “VA clinics overrun with veterans in need” of mental health care. Some, but not all, of those issues involve programs at the two departments.

Panetta and Shinseki said their departments are cooperating like never before but acknowledged it’s still a problem

The wounded in rehabilitation can still wander through a maze of bureaucracy and overlapping programs because each department has a complex system of care, benefits and services.

Asked about it, Shinseki said: “Two good departments launched and essentially developed good programs that don’t quite harmonize.”

Panetta was more specific.

“You’ve got two bureaucracies that have basically developed their own approach to dealing with these systems, and they get familiar with them,” he said. “That’s what they use. They resist change. They resist coordination. They resist trying to work together.”

Pressed about it again, Panetta said: “You know, bottom line is, frankly, we’ve just got to kick ass and try to make it happen. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Lawmakers also criticized delays in integrating electronic health records so medical workers in each department can see what information the other has on a patient. Officials have been working on it for some time but say it won’t be ready until 2017.

“I don’t really have a question for you,” said Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio. “I just want you to fix this, for crying out loud.”

For more on the unusual joint hearing:

NBC News: Panetta to Congress: Transition system for veterans is ‘overwhelmed’

Bloomberg: Military Faces Suicide ‘Epidemic,’ Panetta Tells Congress

Department of Defense: Panetta, Shinseki Warn of Stress on VA From Wars, Budget

McClatchy newspapers: Military-to-civilian transition still a challenge, VA and defense chiefs say

 

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