USA — Leaders Outline Health Care, Family Services Improvements

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)

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