The VA and Pentagon Take a Small – but Very Expensive – Step on Medical Records
Policy + Politics

The VA and Pentagon Take a Small – but Very Expensive – Step on Medical Records

REUTERS/Government Handout

The Defense Department recently informed Congress it has reached a technical milestone that only took millions of wasted taxpayer dollars and years of constant berating from lawmakers to achieve: It can now provide limited sharing of electronic health records with the Veterans Affairs Department.

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, recently sent a letter to the leaders of the powerful House Appropriations Committee notifying them that the agency had achieved “interoperability” with the VA’s electronic medicals records, as required by the fiscal 2014 defense policy bill, according to Politico.

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The agency’s new Joint Legacy Viewer web-based software allows both military and VA health care providers to read health records from multiple sources. Health care providers cannot, however, update or alter records through the system.

While significant, the announcement represents just one step in a long process that has infuriated political leaders and veterans throughout the country for years.

The two lumbering agencies have been trying since 1998 to integrate medical data so that VA health care providers can access and modify military records in the Pentagon’s medical network.

In 2010, the departments created an interagency program office that spent an estimated $564 million on planning to create a joint electronic record before determining in 2013 that the VA should keep using its own system and the Pentagon should find a separate, commercial solution.

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Last year the Pentagon selected Cerner to be its primary electronic health record provider in a deal that could be worth roughly $9 billion over its 18-year span. Meanwhile, the VA launched a modernization effort dubbed the VistA Evolution Program. Congress provided $182 million for the effort in fiscal 2015, though the upgrade’s final price tag remains unknown.

The Pentagon’s announcement is “certainly a step forward,” according to Carlos Fuentes, senior legislative associate for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

While “interoperability is great” because it helps smooth the transition for active duty service members from the Pentagon to the VA, “ultimately what would be best is if there was an integration of DOD and VA records,” he added.

However, that remains a “pipedream” at the moment since the two bureaucracies decided to go their separate ways, according to Fuentes.

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He emphasized the importance of being able to share and update medical information both ways, which the new system cannot do. For instance, active duty members sometimes get moved to reserve status, thus making them eligible for VA health care, only to be put back on active status and moved back into the Pentagon’s care.

Fuentes also noted that active military can receive mental health care at VA facilities that specialize in that kind of treatment.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), a member of the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee who regularly grills VA officials about the status of their IT projects, said he was “pleased that VA and DOD have taken a significant step in the difficult process of connecting two complex health IT systems.”

“It is natural to be skeptical given past delays and disappointments, but I’m encouraged by today’s news,” he said in a statement to The Fiscal Times. “The electronic health systems used by our service members and veterans are critical to ensuring they receive the care they deserve. As DOD and VA continue to modernize their health IT systems, we must be vigilant that we are on course for meaningful interoperability.” 

Fuentes said another reason to remain vigilant going forward is because there’s a larger conversation that needs to be had that includes the Health and Human Services Department, which in recent years has pushed providers in the Medicare system to convert to electronic medical records.

All three agencies should work together to “leverage all of their systems” to help integrate health data between public and private sector providers, he said.