Agencies cite data sharing to aid troops

Senators today turned a hearing on progress by the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments to integrate their processes and systems to simplify the transition of returning wounded warfighters into an opportunity to criticize VA for reportedly underplaying the full extent of suicide and suicide attempts by returning service members.

Meanwhile, VA and DOD have taken steps to speed the veteran disability process, to share health data across the departments and establish centers for traumatic brain injury and a coordinated recovery program, Gordon Mansfield, deputy VA secretary, told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Even as VA reported that it is hiring more mental health professionals to care for veterans, senators challenged Mansfield by charging that VA was withholding the full effects of the risk of suicide and suicide attempts by returning service members.

Rand Corp. released a report recently stating that 320,000 service members suffer from a traumatic brain injury and 300,000 suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Only half of them sought treatment, and of that number, only half received minimally adequate treatment, said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). She obtained an e-mail message from Dr. Ira Katz, VA’s deputy chief patient care services officer for mental health, to a media adviser. The message apparently indicated VA wanted to mask the extent of suicide and suicide attempts.

“Sh-h-h. Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical facilities,” said the e-mail message, which Murray read aloud. Murray and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), the committee's chairman, called for Katz's resignation.

“We are dealing with the invisible wounds of war. The number-one priority of the VA should be caring for our veterans, not covering up the truth,” Murray said.

Mansfield apologized and promised to work with the committee to provide the panel with accurate information.

The service delivery gaps that VA and DOD are trying to fix came as a result of revelations last year of bureaucratic problems and poor post-hospital care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for wounded service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. DOD and VA are implementing recommendations from the President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors. The departments are working, through an oversight committee made up of senior VA and DOD officials, to target immediate corrective actions, Mansfield said.

VA and DOD have dealt with 500 recommendations and have schedules, metrics and milestones for all of them, said Gordon England, DOD's deputy secretary. He and Mansfield lead the collaboration efforts.

“We are trying to have it all in the system to be ready for a smooth transition and to make sure we have no extreme interruptions [in progress] as we move to the next administration,” England testified.

VA and DOD also have expanded the categories of medical data that they can share, Mansfield said. That includes outpatient prescription data, outpatient and inpatient radiology and laboratory reports, allergy information, access to physician and clinical notes, problem lists and battle theater health data. In December, DOD began to make available inpatient discharge summary data from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center

“We are near the goal line,” said David Chu, DOD undersecretary for personnel and readiness. “By Sept. 30, we will be able to send back and forth any electronic record of medical data.”

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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