WASHINGTON– The days of the Department of Veterans Affairs waiting passively for veterans leaving the military to come seeking benefits and services are over, President Barack Obama told military reporters yesterday.

Today’s VA is reaching out, while servicemembers are still in uniform, to make sure they know what their benefits are and what services are available to them, he said during a White House roundtable interview.

Obama called this “active outreach” an important first step in ensuring servicemembers don’t “fall through the cracks” as they transition from the Defense Department to VA systems.

“We have been placing a lot more emphasis on outreach, because although there are hundreds of thousands of veterans who are using our services, we know that there are hundreds of thousands more who may not know that benefits are available,” he said.

Obama said he wants to ensure that “every single veteran — not just our active forces, but also the National Guard and reservists — are aware of the benefits that are available to them.”

“Guiding them through that process, we think, is extraordinarily important,” he said.

That’s particularly true in the cases of wounded warriors, he said, whose transitions are being eased by VA’s additional claims adjusters and technological improvements to streamline the application process.

“What we’re trying to do is just break down the hurdles that exist between veterans and the VA,” he said.

Obama called the new joint virtual lifetime electronic record one of the longer-term answers to promoting a more seamless transition process. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates proposed the measure to improve care and services to transitioning veterans by smoothing the flow of medical records between the two departments.

“When a member of the armed services separates from the military, he or she will no longer have to walk paperwork from a [military] duty station to a local VA health center,” Obama explained as he announced the initiative in April.

The new electronic record, which includes administrative as well as medical records, will reduce lost hard-copy files and delays in getting benefits processed, the president said. It also provides a framework to ensure health-care providers have all the information they need to deliver high-quality health care, while reducing medical errors, officials noted.

Shinseki told reporters yesterday the new record represents a big step forward that will require a merger of the electronic records within the two departments.

Noting that he lived under the Defense Department’s system for many years when he served in uniform, the retired Army general said he’s “very proud” of the VA’s electronic records system. “We have to get them to talk, or to come together,” he said. “That’s what this is about.”

The full impact of an integrated system will take some time to realize, Shinseki said.

“Trying to do the seamless transition when a youngster takes off a uniform today and is inducted into the Veterans Department tomorrow — nearly impossible,” he said. “And so what we’ve agreed to do is create a system where a youngster takes the oath of office today, and while he or she is serving, we begin the process of creating an electronic record in [the Defense Department] that is mirrored in VA.”

This will go a long way toward plugging any gaps that inadvertently occur during the transition process, he said.

“However long they serve — whether it’s two years or 10 years — when they take the uniform off, a seamless transition has already occurred,” Shinseki said. “They’re a known quantity. We know where they’ve been. We know what injuries [they’d had], what operations they’ve been on.”

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