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Hon. Cliff Stearns, a Representative in Congress from the State of Florida

Thank you Mr. Chairman,

For several years now, we have held hearings, heard testimony, and listened to a number of recommendations and proposals to make the transition of service members from active duty to the Veterans’ Administration as smooth as possible.  However, here we are again today, with many of the same issues outstanding. 

Last year’s GAO report on these issues quoted VA officials as saying that the transfer of service members to their system from the DOD would be more efficient if the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center (PRC) medical personnel had real time access to the service members’ complete DOD electronic medical records from the referral facility.  As Yogi Berra said, this is Deja-Vou all over again! 

Back in 1982, Congress identified the sharing of medical records as a critical need, and passed the ‘Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense Health Resources Sharing and Emergency Operations Act’ that created the first interagency committee to supervise those opportunities to exchange information between the two departments.  This was the first in a long series of new oversight committees, interagency cooperative committees, and special task forces that looked into this same issue.  Back in 2003, President Bush established the Task Force to Improve Health Care Delivery for Our Nation’s Veterans.  The first recommendation of this task force four years ago was that the VA and DOD should “develop and deploy by fiscal year 2005” electronic medical records that are interoperable for both systems and standards based.  We are two years beyond that deadline and not much closer to its completion.  Frankly, I am very concerned about the Information Security procedures at the VA which have not even implemented basic steps like encrypting each laptop.  I would insist that those precautions are in place immediately and done before we add any more confidential information to the system. 

Another concern of mine is the availability of mental health services for our service members returning from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is my understanding that initial screenings by both the DOD and VA are conducted in adequate time, but the concern is the long wait for follow up appointments.  Some veterans receiving mental health care for PTSD could be delayed in their next appointments by up to 90 days!  Currently, VA officials report that they are managing the workload of referrals for PTSD treatment, but are concerned about the influx of new returning veterans from their service overseas which could strain the VA’s ability to treat them. Over 24,000 service members have returned from these theaters so far, and many more are anticipated over the coming year. We need to look into ways to expand the capacity of the VA to provide mental health services to our returning service members in a timely and efficient manner.