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Effort to integrate DOD, VA medical records draws criticism

Jennifer Ross files medical records aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in 2009. Veterans Affairs and defense officials insist they are still on track to develop lifelong medical records for all servicemembers.

WASHINGTON -- Veterans Affairs and defense officials insist they are still on track to develop lifelong medical records for all servicemembers, a promise made by President Barack Obama four years ago.

But lawmakers accuse department officials of wasting time and money on piecemeal solutions, and have serious doubts whether the promise of seamless medical records will ever be a reality.

Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced plans to speed up health information sharing between the two departments, providing basic information on prescriptions, lab results and doctor visits.

The leaders said the goal was to provide short-term results for troops and veterans, rather than wait years for a fully shared medical records system. Those files should be available in a common format on the department’s separate health information systems by the end of this year.

“Rather than building a single integrated system from scratch, we will focus our immediate efforts on integrating VA and DOD health data as quickly as possible, by focusing on interoperability and using existing solutions,” Panetta said.

But lawmakers saw the move as backing off the White House promise to create a single, seamless records system for the military and veterans services.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, called it a disheartening disappointment. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the departments are “repeating past mistakes” of preserving two complex and outdated data systems.

“When DOD and VA take shortcuts, the veterans and servicemembers under their care will be shortchanged,” he said in a statement.

The topic has been a sore spot for veterans advocates, who for years have argued that seamless transfer of military health records to VA hospitals could save veterans time and lives.

Both departments have made progress in recent years digitizing all medical records, but communication between physicians in different agencies remains problematic. Veterans frequently complain of repeated blood tests, missing information on past injuries and the frustration of starting anew with every doctor’s visit.

VA officials insist the new approach doesn’t replace efforts to develop a single, lifelong electronic health record for military personnel.

“The two departments still intend to create a single electronic health record,” a VA spokesman said. “The Secretaries’ direction to get to data interoperability quickly is simply a reprioritization to provide near-term improvements for our servicemembers, their families, veterans and health care practitioners.”

For the last two years, officials have been working to upgrade and update their existing health records programs into a shared system, calling it the most cost-effective and least disruptive approach.

They insist the plan will produce standardized records and a common user interface not just for defense and VA physicians, but for civilian specialists as well.

Still, lawmakers this week questioned the wisdom of preserving those legacy systems instead of starting anew. They note that the VA is spending significant funds to upgrade VistA, its current health records system, and defense officials are looking at pricey replacements for AHLTA, its current system.

“We have just witnessed hundreds of millions of dollars go down the drain,” said Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, ranking member on the House veterans committee.

“I’m disappointed that our nation’s two largest government agencies – one of which is the world’s foremost developer of high-tech machines and cyber-systems – could not come together on something that would have been so beneficial to those that served.”

Following this week’s announcement, Roger Baker, assistant VA secretary for information and technology, said the agencies are still on track to meet goals of a common health record and shared software by 2017.

But, with the new announcement, the departments hope veterans and troops will start seeing the benefits of the shared basic information by the end of the year.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane

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