Pentagon Red Tape Keeps Medical Records From Doctors of the Wounded

After calling U.S. civilians' work in Afghanistan
After calling U.S. civilians' work in Afghanistan "neat," President Bush said: "I guess 'neat' isn't a sophisticated word." (By Ron Edmonds -- Associated Press)
By Al Kamen
Friday, February 16, 2007

Department of Veterans Affairs doctors are furious over a recent decision by the Pentagon to block their access to medical information needed to treat severely injured troops arriving at VA hospitals from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The VA physicians handle troops with serious brain injuries and other major health problems. They, rely on digital medical records that track the care given wounded troops from the moment of their arrival at a field hospital through their evacuation to the United States.

About 30 VA doctors in four trauma centers around the country have treated about 200 severely wounded soldiers and Marines. The docs had been receiving the complete digital records from the Pentagon until the end of January, using the Pentagon's Joint Patient Tracking Application.

But on Jan. 25, when Shane McNamee, a physician in the Richmond VA Medical Center, tried to get the full records, he couldn't. He sent an urgent e-mail to VA chief liaison officer Edward Huycke.

"My JPTA account has been disabled within last few days," McNamee wrote. "I called the hotline and was told that all VA accounts have been locked. Could not get a good answer why. Anyhow -- I have 4 [Iraq/Afghanistan] service members to arrive within the next 2 days. This information is terribly important," the doctor wrote.

Thirty-four minutes later Huycke e-mailed back: "Ok, Shane. Will get on it. Not sure what's up."

An hour or so later, a senior VA official forwarded McNamee's e-mail to Lt. Col. David Parramore at the Pentagon, saying that McNamee "needs his access back to JPTA to provide the best possible treatment for soldiers injured in [Iraq/Afghanistan] arriving there in a few days. Can you help?"

Tommy Morris, director of Deployment Health Systems, responded the next morning to Parramore's inquiry, after contacting Ellen Embry, deputy assistant secretary of defense for force health protection. "I spoke with Embry and no agreements, no data sharing via access to JPTA."

The access cutoff came after Morris, in a Jan. 23 e-mail, instructed a colleague: "If the VA currently has access I need a list of persons and I need their accounts shut off ASAP. It is illegal for them to have access without data use agreements and access controls in place by federal regulations and public law."

There have been meetings between VA and Pentagon officials. The Pentagon declined to comment yesterday. VA officials apparently thought it might have been resolved Monday. But an e-mail Monday from Morris to a co-worker said: "The leadership has not authorized the VA accounts to be turned back on, in case someone approaches you about this."

Last week, Sens. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Larry E. Craig (Idaho) -- the chairman and ranking Republican on the Veterans' Affairs Committee -- wrote David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel, of their "deep concern" about VA trauma center doctors not having access to complete records.

"For those servicemembers suffering from a traumatic brain injury," they wrote, "VA's access to in-theater imaging is an important and valuable tool for tracking their patient's progress since being wounded or injured." They suggested the VA doctor be given temporary access to JPTA while the data-sharing questions are worked out.


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