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The failure of decadelong efforts to streamline medical record-keeping for service members as they move between the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments is "inexcusable," a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee said Wednesday.
"In the private sector, this would be done by now — it would have to be," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif. "I don't feel the same sense of obligation here. I question the will to get it done."
An ambitious plan to unite the departments under a single electronic health record system — years in the making — was abandoned this month in favor of a less costly plan to make DoD and VA systems "interoperable."
Administrative obstacles in the current system often delay treatment and payment of disability claims for veterans after they leave active duty, with records shuffled between VA and DoD.
Mike Viterna, president of the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates, said in an interview that the importance of improving the military health records system can't be overemphasized.
"These inefficiencies delay necessary care and compromise that care," Viterna said. "People need their records for disability claims. They're being underserved."
Viterna, who served 33 years in the Air Force as a medical services manager, is not optimistic about the prospects of the new electronic record-keeping plan based on existing technology.
"The track record makes you suspicious of how effective it can be," he said.
The original e-records project, first implemented in 2004, was designed to streamline health care for military personnel transitioning to civilian life. It was slated to go into effect by 2017 at a cost of about $4 billion, according to DoD estimates from last year. But this year, officials scrapped that plan when technology challenges persisted and cost estimates nearly doubled, opting instead to build a system based on existing programs.
The "patchwork of initiatives" that have been put in place over 15 years leaves veterans shortchanged by an outdated system, said Valerie Melvin of the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm.
Melvin wrote a report released Wednesday that questions the departments' ability to share health records with existing systems.
"This is the result of poor oversight and inadequate accountability," she said.
Lawmakers blasted officials for dumping a program that has already cost the government an estimated $1 billion. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House committee, lambasted DoD and VA officials for "down-the-drain funding" to programs that have shown few results.
"I'm concerned we're taking a step back toward a model that has been tried and failed," Miller said.
Elizabeth McGrath, DoD's deputy chief management officer, said the new scaled-back program would be in effect by the end of this year, saving the government "hundreds of millions" of dollars, although she did not provide specific cost figures.
Lawmakers remain skeptical. "I don't see anything here that makes me think we won't be sitting here in another 10 years asking the same questions and having the same problems," said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn.
With across-the-board federal budget cuts looming Friday, McGrath said the Pentagon doesn't yet "fully understand the impact that sequestration could have" on the electronic medical record program.
Miller voiced concern that VA and Defense Department officials focused too closely on cost-cutting measures.
"It sounds like we're talking too much about finding the least expensive solution, and not the solution that's best for our veterans," he said.