Retreat by VA and DoD on electronic health records criticized

February 8, 2013

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki shake hands after a meeting at the VA this week. (Department of Defense photo.)

A decision this week by the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments to scrap an ambitious effort to create a single shared electronic health-records system for service members and veterans is drawing sharp criticism on Capitol Hill.

The departments have been working since 2008 on a project to create a seamless lifetime health record by 2017 to help ease the transition from military to civilian life for service members and veterans.

But after numerous delays and more than $1 billion spent on the project, the two departments now say it will be faster and cheaper to merge the existing systems.

“Rather than building a single, integrated system from scratch, we will focus our immediate efforts on integrating VA and DOD health data as quickly as possible by upgrading our existing systems,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said following a meeting Tuesday with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki at VA headquarters.

“The decision by DOD and VA to turn their backs on a truly integrated electronic health record system is deeply troubling,” said House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.)  “The need for a record system integrated across all DOD and VA components has been universally accepted for years.”

Until this week’s announcement, Miller added, “both agencies have given us nothing but assurances they were working toward that goal.”

“This is a huge setback and completely unacceptable,” said. Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), ranking member of the House committee. “For years we have been told by both agencies that progress was made and that things were on track.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision. “An integrated record would allow for a streamlined and timely claims process, faster decisions on benefits, less duplication in medical testing and more efficient, cost-effective treatment for both physical and mental health needs,” he said.

The VA and Pentagon, however, insist that the decision will improve health care for service members and veterans.

“This approach is affordable, achievable, and if we refocus our efforts we believe we can achieve the key goal of a seamless system for health records between VA and DOD on a greatly accelerated schedule,” Panetta said.

Steve Vogel is a reporter for the national staff of The Washington Post who covers the federal government and frequently writes about the military and veterans.
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