WASHINGTON - Congressional leaders overseeing veterans' issues criticized on Wednesday a decision by the Obama administration to move away from building a new computer system for storing the health records of troops and veterans.
The Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department are working to merge their health records so that doctors can track a patient's health history from the time he or she enters the military to when her or she leaves and gets care at the VA.
The plan was to build a whole new computer system that would allow the two departments to merge all their health records by 2017. The departments announced Tuesday they could get the job done more quickly and cheaply by enhancing their existing, but disparate computer systems.
Leaders of the Senate and House committees overseeing veterans' issues disagreed, saying Wednesday that the change in tactics shortchanged veterans.
"When DOD and VA take shortcuts, the veterans and service members under their care will be shortchanged," said Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
"We have just witnessed hundreds of millions of dollars go down the drain," said the ranking Democratic member of the committee, Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., expressed similar sentiments in a joint statement.
The merging of health records by the Pentagon and VA is designed to enhance patient care. The idea is for doctors at the VA to be able to pull up health records and determine quickly what illnesses, prescriptions and tests a person had while in the military. The same concept works for veterans who are treated through the military's Tricare system.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that instead of building a single, integrated computer system that both departments would use, they would instead focus on standardizing patient data in a way that would work for the existing systems each department maintained. VA officials said the goal is still to create one single record for patients that doctors working for either department could use.
"This approach is affordable, it's achievable, and if we refocus our efforts, we believe we can achieve the key goal of a seamless system of health records between VA and DOD on a greatly accelerated schedule," Panetta said.