Hagel directs Pentagon to seek new software for health records

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Wednesday directed the Pentagon to seek new healthcare management software that would better integrate military health care records with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel talks to President Obama. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

The inability of the Department of Defense and the VA to develop a single, integrated electronic health record has been the source of much frustration on Capitol Hill. In February, the departments announced they were abandoning efforts to create a single system.

A bipartisan group of House representatives sent a letter Wednesday to President Obama urging him to intervene and “end the back and forth” between the two departments. “Select a system, pick a path, and move forward,” said the letter, signed by committee chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), ranking Democrat Michael Michaud of Maine, and 18 other members of the committee.

The Defense Department said it is seeking new software via competitive bid from the private sector that will improve continuity of care as military members transition into civilian life.

“Our service members and veterans, and their families, expect and deserve a seamless system to administer the benefits they have earned,” Hagel said in a statement.

Michaud expressed disappointment at Hagel’s announcement, which he said amounted to a continued retreat from a single system.

“It appears to back an interoperable approach over an integrated one,” he said. “An integrated electronic health record is something that Congress mandated years ago and has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on.”

Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall, who led a review of the health care records system, told reporters Wednesday that the departments expect to create a seamless transfer system by the end of the year. 

Hagel and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki were to meet with members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday afternoon to update them on efforts to eliminate the VA claims backlog.

The House letter sent to the White House noted that many claims are “dramatically delayed” by the length of time it takes the Department of Defense to provide the VA with health care records, and asked for Obama’s “personal commitment” to improve cooperation.

Members of the committee also announced Wednesday that they have completed a legislative package of 10 bills they say will boost the VA’s efforts to end the claims backlog.

One of the bills requires the Defense Department to provide certified, complete and electronic records to VA within 21 days.

“The backlog of claims at the VA is a stain on the conscience of our country—and it is our responsibility to promote innovation and to empower the VA to reduce and eliminate the backlog once and for all,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said at a press conference where she and others urged passage of the package.

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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