The approximately 200,000 military personnel who transition to civilian life each year need more resources and better communication about these resources to help them transition, said Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
Several senators at a hearing last week stated their concern about military mental health and the transition from TRICARE — the Defense Department’s health care program — to the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system. Several senators were also worried about attendance for the transition assistance program (TAP), which they agreed needs to be higher.
“We can address unemployment, homelessness and suicide, as well as bolster military recruitment and support success after the military if we can improve the transition from active duty to private service,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the ranking member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “Success after service will look different for every service member. That is why we must make certain that veterans are equipped with the knowledge and resources they need to thrive. That knowledge and resource needs to come earlier than the day in which they leave active service.”
The DoD is making progress, according to Ashish Vazirani, the acting under secretary of Defense for personnel and readiness.
“We have made great strides in mental health support services, career advancement and educational resources, transitioning spouse employment assistance and homelessness prevention just to name a few,” Vazirani said. “Our interagency team knows our work is ongoing. We are wholeheartedly committed to continuous improvement of the transition process and our transition assistance program.”
However, while DoD leadership states its progress, there is room for improvement. A Government Accountability Office report found that 70% of service members transitioning to civilian life did not start TAP at least 365 days before separation as required by law. It is unclear why only 30% met this requirement, but GAO and several senators urged the Defense Department to look into this. A few senators said this statistic was concerning because of the importance of TAP to inform military personnel about their benefits as a veteran and to help them through the transition process.
“We know that we have to make improvements there,” Vazirani said. “We’re providing that data to the services and one of the things that we’re also doing is at the assessment at the end of TAP, understanding if there are barriers to that timeliness. And what we’re finding is that those barriers tend to be in the area of three categories: involuntary separations, which are happening within that 365 day time period, mission requirements and personal decisions.”
Vazirani said that DoD is working to integrate a single data repository to provide this information and measurement to help the department make improvements. He added there’s been no pushback to complying with the law.
“I do confirm our commitment to taking care of people and ensuring that service members make a successful transition so that they have a successful (life) as a veteran as well,” Vazirani said. “We are working with the military departments and services to make sure that they have the information available about the starting of TAP and the completion of TAP, providing that information, creating dashboards that the commanders have available to them so that we have a clear understanding of if there are any barriers to TAP and addressing those barriers.”
“Participation in TAP is correlated with a higher application rate for VA benefits,” Joshua Jacobs, under secretary for benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said.
Jacobs said that the VA contacts eligible veterans at three points during their first year after transitioning from active duty through its solid start program. He said that as of September 30, the program helped approximately 400,000 veterans access their benefits. However, he said too many recently separated veterans are not accessing VA’s most high impact services in the first year. To address this, VA — in partnership with military service branches, DoD and the Department of Labor — is identifying pain points to design solutions.
For example, VA is “hosting annual veteran transition symposiums to coordinate and improve the way that we support transitioning servicemembers and their families.” It is also updating the TAP curriculum to let accredited veteran service organizations (VSOs) and state veterans affairs departments have direct contact with transitioning service members and their families. VA is also prototyping a personalized digital solution to let transitioning service members set goals, and has benefits advisors for transitioning separating service members. VA and DoD are also working to educate active service members about the transition period and their benefits.
“One of the ways that we’re working to provide more assistance to help with the filing of claims is through the upgrades to our TAP 6.0 curriculum, which is going to launch in January,” Jacobs said. “And through that change, we’re going to add at the end of every day, between 45 and 60 minutes for accredited VSOs, as well as state departments of Veterans Affairs to come in and speak directly to transitioning service members and their families. And that’s important for a couple of reasons. There’s a lot of information; we’re compressing 200 pages into a day and so there are going to be follow up questions and those VSOs and state departments of VA can help in the following days, weeks and months, either directly or through a warm handoff to us. Two is there’s a growing risk of predatory actors trying to target veterans to get their earned benefits. They’re charging money for things that our incredible VSO partners, the accredited VSO partners and the state governments are doing for free and very well. And so by creating that touch point at the end of every TAP class that VA offers, we’re creating that warm connection and helping build relationships that hopefully can be helpful later on.”
Vazirani and Jacobs said that TAP is individually tailored to suit transitioning service members’ needs. There is an assessment for the services members risks, such as homelessness or mental health, that the program will help to address.
Another important aspect is the transition of health care from TRICARE to the VA.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said there should be a seamless transition of electronic health records from DoD to the VA.
Vazirani said that as DoD has rolled out its EHR, there have been several lessons, which the department has also shared with the VA.
“We’ve learned about what we need to do from a usability standpoint to make the EHR more usable for the healthcare provider,” he said. “We’ve learned about the training that we need to conduct to ensure that there’s a quick ramp up on utilization.”
Several senators raised the issue of mental health, pointing to a high suicide rate among service members. The senators agreed that this is concerning and should be addressed and that veteran mental health cannot be ignored either.
To help with employment after separation, Vazirani said that employers should be more involved in the process, whether in the skill bridge or military spouse employment programs. He said that more Americans talking about service and the success of veterans is also helpful. Jacobs added that the Hiring Our Heroes community is also a good connection and networking opportunity.
There are other programs that DoD is offering such as the Skills Bridge program, a tuition assistance program and credentialing and certification programs in addition to TAP to help military personnel transition to civilian life through new skills or certifications as well as internships and apprenticeships.
“Service members’ transition begins on day one of service and it is our duty to ensure a successful service member is a successful veteran” Vazirani said.
Kirsten Errick covers the Defense Department for Federal News Network. She previously reported on federal technology for Nextgov on topics ranging from space to the federal tech workforce. She has a Master’s in Journalism from Georgetown University and a B.A. in Communication from Villanova University.