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OPINION

We can give GIs seamless, lifetime medical records

By REP. JIM BANKS | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: August 7, 2018

When our servicemembers wear the uniform, they make a commitment to serve our country. In return, our country makes a commitment to them: to take care of our heroes when they come home.

This Congress has been the most productive in decades in delivering results for our veterans. We’ve sent bipartisan legislation to President Donald Trump’s desk that brings accountability to the Department of Veterans Affairs, increases transparency in the timeliness and quality of care, and streamlines the broken appeals process for disability claims — and passed the largest expansion of GI Bill benefits since the original GI Bill was signed into law. The House has passed more than 70 veterans bills and 26 of those have been signed by the president.

Although we’re delivering on our promises to our nation’s veterans, Congress has an important oversight role to ensure the VA stays on track.

VA health care relies on an electronic health record, or EHR, system that, like so many other government IT systems, is falling behind the state of the art. While the current EHR was groundbreaking in the 1980s and its ability to share medical records among different VA hospitals was impressive, today it is increasingly starved of new capabilities. Its operations and maintenance costs are $1 billion per year and climbing, and its ability to communicate with the Department of Defense’s system is far from seamless. When servicemembers become veterans their medical records still do not automatically follow them into the VA. Similarly, when the department refers veterans to private providers in their communities, far too often the only way to transfer records is by fax.

Outside experts have been recommending for years that the VA and the DOD implement the same commercial EHR system. In May, the VA began the largest EHR modernization program in the country and signed one of the largest IT contracts in the federal government — following the DOD, which did so in 2013. This multibillion-dollar, 10-year effort, if properly implemented, will modernize not just the VA’s EHR system, but the way health care is delivered, making its quality more consistent around the country. It will finally achieve the decades-old goal of a seamless, lifetime health record from enlistment to old age.

The key caveat is this transition must be managed properly. The VA has a long and troubling history of IT mismanagement, and even under the best of conditions in the private sector EHR transitions are usually bumpy.

The EHR modernization has huge potential to be disruptive, and its failure would be catastrophic to both veterans and taxpayers, which is why Congress must exercise extraordinary oversight. That’s why last month, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs created a new subcommittee on technology modernization dedicated to the task.

I’m pleased to announce that the subcommittee will hold our first hearing on Sept. 13. The focus of this hearing will be on the role of the Interagency Program Office. The IPO was created by Congress to act as the single point of accountability for the DOD and the VA to implement a fully interoperable electronic health record system. Ten years later, we’re still discussing ways to achieve interoperability, so this development has been anything but rapid. While the IPO can and should be a powerful force for good management, it’s clear it is not being utilized to its full potential. We must ensure the IPO has the authority to carry out the mission Congress gave it. Close collaboration between the DOD and the VA is absolutely essential in order to achieve a seamless, lifetime medical record, and the IPO is the best forum to ensure that collaboration.

I was honored to be chosen as chairman of this important subcommittee, and I commit to veterans and taxpayers to ask the hard questions. Far too often Congress only finds out a government program is failing when it has already become a crisis. I am determined to do all I can to make sure that is not the case; I pledge to monitor this program every step of the way. Furthermore, Congress and the VA must remain focused on the actual needs of veterans and the dedicated VA employees who care for them. EHR modernization for the sake of EHR modernization is not good enough.

Finally, partisanship has no place in this issue, and it would be a shame to allow it to creep it into the discussion. The VA’s EHR modernization will span multiple administrations and Congresses, as the DOD’s already has. The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has distinguished itself for constructive bipartisanship, and I am proud to continue this tradition.

Rep. Jim Banks, an Indiana Republican, is chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on technology modernization.

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