Panetta, Shinseki order swifter progress toward joint health records

Friday - 12/7/2012, 6:10am EST

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

Download mp3

The secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs have new marching orders on the effort to combine their two electronic medical records systems: Go faster.

DoD and VA already are working on combining their separate electronic medical records into a single, seamless one. The departments' current plan calls for a shutdown of their legacy patient record infrastructures — DoD's AHLTA and VA's VistA — by 2017, at which point they would be replaced by a joint system. Some of the initial capabilities of the Integrated Electronic Health Record are scheduled to go online in San Antonio, and Hampton Roads, Va., by 2014.

But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he and VA Secretary Eric Shinkseki want to move the timeline to the left.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta

"Today, both Secretary Shinseki and I agree to develop a joint DoD-VA plan for accelerating this program, to try to integrate our health care systems," he said. "And what we said is that we want to be able to meet or beat the schedule that we've established as targets here. We've asked that that plan be presented to us by early January. We've got to do everything we can to move this on a more expeditious path."

Spokesmen for DoD and VA both said there was no specific revised timeline yet. More details on the new strategy won't be available until the DoD-VA Integrated Program Office presents its plan to the secretaries a month from now, they said.

11th meeting of the secretaries

Panetta spoke at a joint press conference with Shinseki after the leaders of the government's two biggest departments conducted their 11th meeting on better integrating their operations.

They used the joint briefing also to announce what they promised would be major changes to the program that helps separating service members prepare for their return to civilian life. Under orders from Congress in the Vow to Hire Heroes Act, the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) is now a mandatory program for everyone who leaves military service, effective immediately.

"We've got a large number of individuals in the military that are going to transition over these next few years in terms of our force structure, and we're going to have a lot of people going into this system," Panetta said. "I'm delighted to report that we're very satisfied that the requirements of the Vow Act have been fully tested in terms of effectiveness at all 206 installations and is ready to go. We're on track to implement additional tracks for service members interested in education and technical training and entrepreneurship by October 2013."

DoD said the redesigned program will be called Transition GPS. It's a partnership between the Pentagon, VA and the Department of Labor and will bring together various agency activities that have had the same mission up until now but haven't necessarily been integrated.

Requiring departing service members to get briefings about VA benefits and attend employment workshops run by Labor is phase one. As the program matures, the Pentagon wants the military services to start preparing service members for transition long before they take off their uniforms. Panetta instructed the departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force to come up with plans to give their service members transition training at several points throughout their military careers, the Pentagon said.

Benefits process still stuck in a paper world

But whether military members successfully make the transition to civilian employment or not, it's still far too difficult for them to receive VA benefits, due in part to the paper-based process that's still used by the Veterans Benefits Administration, Shinseki said. VA hopes the Veterans Benefits Management System will solve that problem.

Secretary Eric Shinseki, Department of Veterans Affairs

"In this department, we have one of the country's best electronic health records, but in our benefits administration, we're paper-bound," he said. "So we've been developing this tool for the last two years. It's in the process of being fielded now. It'll be at 18 of our regional offices before the end of December. And we'll be fully fielded with this automation system in 2013. That puts us on track to eliminate the backlog [of benefit claims] as we have indicated we would in 2015."

Panetta said to make future veterans claims easier, his department also has agreed to conduct more detailed exit physical exams on service members when they leave the military.

"And what that does is it helps expedite the process, so that we don't have to go far back into their past to try to determine whether that claim is valid or not," he said. "This will help ensure that if a service member wants to file a claim in the future, the VA will have the health information they need from DoD at their fingertips and more quickly process that claim."

Shinseki acknowledged DoD and VA have a lot of work to do toward making their IT systems and business processes more interoperable. But the ultimate goal is to make the handoff of healthcare and benefits responsibility completely seamless.

"Our meetings are all about focusing on making sure that those transitions are truly seamless, so that an individual who is raising their right hand and taking the oath of allegiance, swearing into the military today, when they choose to leave a few years down the road, whether it's three or 20, that those records are already resident in the VA system," he said.

RELATED STORIES:

DoD, VA's health IT efforts grow out of leadership, necessity

Integrated health record tests DoD's agile acquisition aspirations

DoD, VA building on early success of joint e-health record