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Lawmakers blast pullback on health records

Feb. 7, 2013 - 05:09PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 7, 2013 - 05:09PM  |  
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Top lawmakers on the Senate and House Veterans' Affairs committees are irked by a Pentagon and VA decision to scale back plans to create a single computer system that would manage service members' and veterans' medical records from recruitment to grave.

Committee leaders issued joint statements Wednesday faulting the departments for failing to produce the technology after spending what could be as much as $1 billion of the $4 billion total estimated cost.

"This is a huge setback and completely unacceptable. For years we have been told by both agencies that progress was made and that things were on track," said Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, ranking Democrat House veterans' committee.

DoD and VA announced Feb. 5 they will build a system based on existing information technology architecture and programs rather than create an entirely new system. The initiative will trim costs and accelerate portions of the program, department leaders said.

DoD and VA were charged with developing a single shared electronics health records system by Congress in 2008.

But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said Tuesday they concluded the system can be created from integrating existing programs.

Currently, the Pentagon uses the DoD Composite Health Care System for its electronic records, while VA uses the Veterans Health Information System and Technology Architecture, or VISTA.

"VA and DoD remain committed to shared, standard data, shared applications and a shared common user interface," explained Roger Baker, VA assistant secretary for information and technology.

"The strategy change is to look to existing electronic health records technology as a starting point on which to build those shared items," he said.

Under the new initiative, physicians at seven VA polytrauma facilities and two DoD facilities — Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and San Antonio Military Medical Center — will be able to view clinical information across a common interface by July, the secretaries said.

VA and DoD will be able to exchange real-time data by the end of the year and all patients should be able to download their medical records from any computer by May, they added.

"Rather than building a single integrated system from scratch, we'll focus our immediate efforts on integrating VA and DoD health data as quickly as possible," Panetta said, calling the approach "affordable" and "achievable."

But House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he is troubled by the plan.

"Previous attempts by DoD and VA to use disparate computer systems to produce universal electronic health records have failed, and unfortunately it appears they are repeating past mistakes," he said.

At a news briefing, DoD deputy chief management officer Elizabeth McGrath estimated the change of plans will save "hundreds of millions."

She added the money spent to date was not wasted because it produced results that will be used in the new system.

Lawmakers vowed to hold DoD and VA accountable for building a system that works as it was meant to, improving care, facilitating the transition between active-duty and veteran status and streamlining claims processing.

"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," Michaud said.

"We have just witnessed hundreds of millions of dollars go down the drain."

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