SAN ANTONIO, Texas – The secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs called for greater compatibility between automated systems of the VA and the Department of Defense, and pledged to shorten the time required for processing disability claims for Soldiers.

Retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki spoke July 22, to more than 2,000 Army health-care professionals at the Army Medical Symposium in San Antonio, Texas, sponsored by U.S. Army Medical Command and the Association of the United States Army.

“It’s the same person moving through our systems; let’s focus on that individual and figure out what tools we have to bring to this,” said Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff. “We have the same mission of caring and supporting that lone Soldier walking point for the nation. Let’s focus on that individual.

“I am personally committed to reducing the backlog and processing times of disability claims so that veterans don’t have to wait six to 12 months for their checks,” Shinseki said.

“The long-term solution is (information technology),” he continued, “but that’s going to take a number of years to put the right programs in place … so we can automate the process.”

Shinseki spoke of advances in electronic health records through the VA’s VISTA or Veterans Health Information Systems Technology Architecture system, and the need to link it to DoD’s AHLTA system.

“AHLTA and VISTA are not entirely compatible. We need to find a way to integrate functionality of our electronic health records fully. We are working on this jointly with great urgency,” he said.

He said VISTA has led to greater access, higher quality, fewer errors and lower costs, and that making the DoD and VA systems compatible will help solve the backlog of disability cases.

“I need an electronic health record, I need an electronic personnel record, so that we can do what I said we needed to do, that is give our veterans disability checks without waiting six to 12 months,” he said.

Shinseki said veterans lead the nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse and suicide, and pledged to take on all the factors that lead to homelessness.

“The word ‘advocacy’ is important. We are describing ourselves as advocates on behalf of veterans, both as our culture and as our overarching philosophy,” he said.

Shinseki described his own experiences with Army medicine during his career.

“I’ve been carried out of combat twice on the backs of Soldiers. Over half of my first five years in service were spent in a hospital bed,” he recalled.

“We appreciated our surgeons, but we loved our nurses. Our nurses were with us every day, every painful step of the way. Good days, bad days, and on those days when you weren’t sure you could gut it out anymore, thanks to them you could and you did,” the retired general said.

Shinseki read from the Medal of Honor citations for combat medics Sgt. David B. Bleak and Spc. Edgar L. McWethy, who earned the nation’s highest award for valor in Korea and Vietnam.

“In the Army’s formations there have always been young Americans like these who rise to do magnificent things in the most frightening and painful moments you can imagine. They represent an ideal,” he commented. “Their leaders can strive to be worthy of their courage and their selflessness.”

“Soldiers and veterans deserve nothing less than our unwavering support, our consistent care and our deep devotion,” he continued. “They have earned all that and more through the sacrifice and service they have delivered and continue to deliver.”