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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks at a Pentagon press briefing on March 15, 2013.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks at a Pentagon press briefing on March 15, 2013. (Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON — Faced with tough questions from legislators, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday said he would decide on a plan within 30 days to work through the tangled process to seamlessly share medical records between the Department of Defense and the VA.

At a hearing with members of the House Appropriations Committee, Hagel admitted the process has bogged down, and promised quick action.

“I’m going to acknowledge that we’re way behind,” said Hagel, who took over as defense secretary in February, and previously served as an official at the VA in the 1980s. “We will do better.”

In recent weeks, the collaboration between the Pentagon and VA on lifelong electronic medical records has become a sore spot for lawmakers and veterans advocates, who have accused officials of abandoning their goal of seamless records sharing by 2017.

In a letter to Hagel sent Tuesday, members of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs urged him to speed the transfer of servicemembers’ records to VA, and institute electronic transfer capabilities by Dec. 31.

“Veterans’ disability benefits claims must be adjudicated in a timely and accurate manner and veterans must receive the benefits to which they are entitled,” committee members wrote, noting that veterans wait an average of more 250 days for decision on a disability benefits claim.

Veterans frequently complain of repeated blood tests, missing diagnoses from previous visits, paperwork problems that delay appointments and the frustration of starting anew with every doctor’s visit.

In February, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the departments would begin some file-sharing processes this year, “rather than building a single integrated system from scratch.”

Officials from both departments said that move would produce immediate dividends for ailing veterans by allowing basic information to be shared across military and VA computer systems.

But critics saw it as an abandonment of the single seamless health record promised for military personnel. Backtracking statements from the departments have done little to convince them that 2017 is still a realistic goal.

At the heart of the argument are the departments’ respective legacy systems. VA is spending billions to upgrade VISTA, its current health records system, and defense officials are looking at pricey replacements for AHLTA, its current system.

Defense officials thus far have been unwilling to commit to switching to the VISTA system, saying it’s just one among many new options being considered.

At the hearing, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said servicemembers must wait months for medical claims processing, while members of her staff attempting to help veterans with health care issues have to dig through boxes of papers to track down information.

“I can’t believe it is still in boxes of records that haven’t been dealt with,” she said. “It’s hard to believe that our military, our distinguished military that serves us all over the world, can’t fix this system so that our veterans can be taken care of.”

Hagel said he couldn’t defend DOD’s past performance on records sharing. In recent days, he said, he has stopped further spending on the process and has restructured program oversight. A plan would be forthcoming soon, he said.

“I want it to work, and until I get my arms around this, I’m not going to spend any more money on this,” Hagel said. “We will have it shortly. Can I tell you in a week or two? We will have something decided within 30 days, I’ll tell you that. I can’t defend it.”

Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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