WASHINGTON — The Defense Department has taken a number of recent steps to improve health care and family support services for military members and their families, the department’s two top leaders told a Senate panel yesterday.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee about several areas of improvement during a hearing about the department’s fiscal 2012 budget.
Gates said he has made quick implementation of the shift to electronic medical records for service members and veterans one of his top priorities. The issue is important enough, he said, that he and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki met one-on-one two weeks ago to discuss how to push the change faster. They will meet again in March and follow up with a staff meeting in April on the issue, he said.
“I have found with these huge bureaucracies, whether it’s DOD or VA, that things don’t move very fast unless they get high-level attention,” he said. “We’re committed to getting fast progress on this. We’ve made a lot of progress, but it’s not fast enough as far as Secretary Shinseki and I are concerned.”
Officials also have stabilized programs, particularly in mental health and family support services, by removing them from the supplemental war funding budget to the base budget, Gates said. In the past three years, he added, “we’ve moved virtually all of it to the base budget, so long after the war funding ends, we’ll still be able to sustain these programs.”
The Defense Department has improved the delivery of mental health services by hiring 6,000 mental health care workers since 2001, when the department had only about a thousand, Mullen said. “There have been extraordinary efforts to address this within the services,” he said, noting that civilian health care also is short of mental health practitioners. Because of that and education and outreach campaigns, officials have a better understanding of problems like post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries, the chairman told the senators.
“Early on, there was a great deal of focus on spouses in terms of their stress, but there’s been an increasing awareness and understanding to address the whole family, including kids,” he said, noting that today’s military children have had parents at war most of their lives.
Public awareness campaigns such as the one President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama announced last month about the health of military families also go a long way in helping service members and their families, Gates said.
The White House campaign “is a huge step forward in giving this visibility in a way we just haven’t had before,” he added.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)