DOD, VA to develop info sharing initiative

The Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs have agreed to work together to develop a system that will allow DOD and VA health care providers to share patient records and related information electronically.

The agencies expect to issue a draft plan by the end of this month outlining funding sources, agency responsibilities and program milestones for the project, which is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars, according to the VA.

Such a program should solve long-standing problems with sharing information between VA medical centers, which handle more than 28 million veteran visits per year, and DOD, which retains patients' medical histories, said Dave Albinson, chief information officer at the Veterans Health Administration. At present, the data is shared on paper or in electronic formats that are not easily translated, and the lack of quick access to full medical histories can affect the quality of patient care and may have an impact on whether lives are saved, Albinson said.

The potential benefits justify the cost, he said. "With resources becoming even scarcer and with the capabilities available in medical technology, it doesn't makes sense to do anything but [share information]," Albinson said.

The VA would not be the only beneficiary of common standards for computer records, said Air Force Col. Lynn Ray, who is helping lead DOD's effort to manage electronic medical information. DOD will be able to care for its own patients better if it can access their medical histories quickly and electronically, Ray said. DOD patient visits number about 50 million a year.

As part of the project, DOD and the VA may revamp their proprietary systems for managing medical information.

The two agencies will be able to share information more easily, not so much through specially tailored interfaces but through common databases, information repositories, data formats and standards for computer-based patient records (CPRs), said Navy Capt. Paul Tibbits, who also is working on the project.

Ray said DOD officials would like to see a prime contractor selected by the end of the fiscal year to handle the task of creating a common CPR system for DOD and the VA.

One likely possibility is that the prime would be selected from contractors on DOD's Defense Medical Information Management/Systems Integration, Design, Development, Operations and Maintenance Services II contract, a $4 billion project expected to be awarded in the next 60 to 90 days. "We're strongly leaning toward D/SIDDOMS II," Tibbits said.

The cost of deploying a common DOD/VA system could cost from $1.5 billion to $3 billion, leaving open the possibility of a request for proposal not tied to D/SIDDOMS II, Ray said. But the costs may be worth it. "It costs us so much money up front, but it saves money in the end," Ray said.

"I think it's high time; from a governmentwide perspective, it always made a lot of sense for the two departments to cooperate," said Bob Woods, president and chief operating officer of Federal Sources Inc., McLean, Va., and former commissioner of the Federal Technology Service at the General Services Administration.

However, the initiative still faces barriers, Woods said, from different congressional appropriations processes to different ways of administering health care. "But in the end, the customer's the same," he said.

"It's like two elephants dancing. If it can get done, it speaks very well of the leadership," he said. "But it needs leadership. It's not something that's going to happen just because it's a good idea."

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