WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Wednesday lamented stagnation in creating lifelong electronic medical records for troops and veterans, decrying a lack of leadership on the issue from the Defense Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the White House.
Officials from both departments said the program is on track, and that seamless sharing of troops’ medical appointments and injury information is within reach.
Lawmakers and bureaucrats have sparred over the medical records issue for months, disagreeing on whether the agencies already have broken promises to create a single system to share the health information.
At a rare joint hearing with the House Armed Services and House Veteran Affairs committees, planners from both departments promised they are working diligently on the issue and making significant progress.
Most military medical records since 2004 are completely electronic, but VA claims processors still have to request records transfers to view the files. Both the DOD and VA are promising seamless sharing of that information by the end of this year for all the records in their respective computer systems.
Lawmakers remain skeptical, largely because of the Defense Department’s decision late last year to develop a new records-management system separate from the existing VA software.
Veterans committee ranking member Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, accused Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki of a “lack of leadership” on the topic, saying the conflicting paths ultimately will hurt troops and veterans.
“We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, noting the costs of development of past systems. “Delaying the delivery of an integrated — that is integrated, not interoperable — information-sharing system runs directly against Congressional intent, and ultimately hurts our veterans.”
Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said that a common records-management system is not needed to have a seamless, lifelong medical record for troops. He argued that as long as both departments can access the information, the programs they use to process the records isn’t important.
Many committee members disagreed.
“The only thing interoperable we get are the litany of excuses flying across both departments every year as to why it’s taking so long to get this done,” said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.
Earlier this year, members of the Armed Services Committee included an amendment in the annual defense authorization bill mandating completion of an integrated health record by October 2016. Senate officials still have to weigh in on the issue before it could become law.
Despite the progress expected by the end of this year, DOD and VA officials voiced concerns about the amendment. They’ve set a goal of fully developed medical record-sharing a year later, with new systems and processes for the agencies.
Miller said he thinks it’s an important tool to keep the departments focused.
“The message of the amendment is simple,” he said. “No more excuses; get this done.”