Pentagon, VA still divided on system for seamless medical records

Outpatient medical records being filed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., in March 2009. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense are supposed to share a common records system by 2017.


By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 28, 2013

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department is looking for a new health records system. The Department of Veterans Affairs loves theirs.

The two agencies are supposed to share a common records system by 2017.

So lawmakers were furious Wednesday when Pentagon officials wouldn’t commit to using the VA’s VISTA program as their new health records system, saying only that its among several options under consideration.

“Nobody wants to blink, everyone is guarding their own turf,” said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. “We’ve had this fight before, and now we’re going backwards.”

Congressmen on the committee were already angry over what they see as a change in goals by the departments over providing lifetime electronic health records to troops and veterans.

Earlier this month, secretaries from both departments announced they would provide shared medical records starting this year, but not a shared, identical system among agency health officials. Lawmakers and veterans advocates blasted that as reneging on the president’s promise of seamless, lifelong medical records for veterans.

Department officials insist that isn’t so.

“We are not moving away from a single, joint electronic health record,” VA assistant secretary for information Roger Baker told the committee. “What has changed is the strategy we will use to accomplish the goal.”

At issue is the behind-the-scenes workings of military medical health records.

Officials from both departments insist that when they’re finished, patients and physicians will share the same information, see the same displays and get a more reliable health care experience -- even if the back-end systems are different.

But critics dispute that. Jacob Gadd, deputy director for health care at the American Legion, called the separate-but-equal systems troubling and unacceptable. Both agencies have promised to coordinate their systems, but with disappointing results.

“Veterans are not getting the single system they were promised,” he said.

Complicating the issue is the Defense Department’s search for a new record system. Despite the advantages, officials told lawmakers the aging VISTA system might not be as adaptable as VA officials say, and might not offer the most up-to-date technology for military medical needs.

They’re researching the system, as they did two years ago, and as they did in the 1990s. Among the public proposals under consideration by the Pentagon is one supplied to by VA health officials, urging the use of the VISTA system.

Committee members accused the department of looking for reasons not to use a shared system. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said every year officials from both agencies find new reasons to delay and defer the joint records work.

“I’ve heard nothing here today that makes me think we’ll be any closer to an answer in nine years,” he said.

Military and VA officials have promised results by the end of this year, in the form of basic health records sharing and a common display of the information.

Elizabeth McGrath, deputy chief management officer for the Department of Defense, said military health officials will decide whether to use the VA’s core computer system or choose another option by the end of March.

Twitter: @LeoShane


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