DOD says health records program will move forward

Echoing earlier assurance from VA's CIO, DOD says that the departments are still working together on an electronic health records program, although its shape has changed from the original vision.

Elizabeth McGrath

DOD's Elizabeth McGrath says the health records effort with the VA is still underway. (DOD photo)

Although the joint Defense Department-Veterans Administration health records program recently came under renewed scrutiny after an announced change of course, DOD officials insist that a system for sharing electronic health data on troops still has a green light.

It will not necessarily be the planned integrated electronic health record (iEHR) program that had been under way since March 2011 and recently was announced would undergo a change of course. But according to DOD Deputy Chief Management Officer Elizabeth McGrath, the shift in strategy has more to do with the IT systems underpinning the effort than a move away from a joint program altogether.

"The DOD and VA have been working together for over probably 10 years to enable greater sharing of information between the two organizations...so we can get out of a paper-based approach to [troops'] medical treatment and history," McGrath said at a March 13 hearing on Capitol Hill. "I think we've made significant progress in terms of sharing information."

Initially, DOD and VA leadership had decided to abandon their respective legacy systems, the Armed Forces Health Longitudinal Technology Application (AHLTA) and the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VISTA), in favor of a common system to enable health records-sharing for military members throughout their careers. After a DOD-VA Interagency Program Office lifecycle cost analysis "put the affordability of the approach in question," leadership at the two agencies decided to seek a less risky plan that would cut costs, keep the plan on schedule and still deliver a digital records-sharing program, McGrath said.

For now, that means the VA will return to using its VISTA legacy system. However, DOD "does not have a desire to use its legacy system" and, after issuing a request for information in February, is determining whether to move to a commercial-off-the-shelf or a government-based solution, she said.

But McGrath, echoing VA CIO Roger Baker's Feb. 27 testimony, denied that the agencies have abandoned a joint program altogether.

"I think the joint strategy still exists, from a data interoperability and integration [perspective]. The change in strategy is really the underlying IT system," McGrath said. "All the handshakes we made in the beginning with the architecture and the data, those are all still absolutely at the forefront. There's been a change to the approach to the underlying IT, but there has been no change to our commitment."

McGrath's comments, made at the House Armed Service Committee's subcommittee on intelligence, emerging threats and capabilities, come a week after the House's continuing resolution ordered the DOD-VA IPO to produce information related to the program, withholding all but 25 percent of funding until the information is submitted and approved.

The program also is facing scrutiny from the Government Accountability Office.

At press time, the DOD-VA IPO had declined to respond to FCW's requests for comment.

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