Leaders of several of the country's veterans' service organizations told lawmakers on Thursday that they need to push the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense to keep going with a plan to integrate the medical records of troops and veterans.
During a two-hour hearing before a joint meeting of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committees, representatives of the veterans' groups slammed the VA for a failure of leadership over the abandoned medical records and also the claims backlog whose end is nowhere in sight.
"We recommend your committees … demand the DoD and the VA to move forward and get the job done," retired Army Col. Bob Norton, deputy director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, told a joint meeting of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committees.
The government already has spent about $1 billion on a project, which was announced in 2008. The system was projected to cost $4 billion by the time it was completed in 2017.
On Feb. 5, however, VA Secretary Erik Shinseki and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the old plan was going to be scrubbed. The two departments now say the solution is to create a record-keeping "platform" that is accessible to their healthcare professionals but which would not be linked.
Norton called the decision unacceptable, and in an interview with Military.com after the hearings said responsibility extends beyond the Pentagon and VA and to the White House.
"It's a triumvirate. It starts with the President. He's the commander-in-chief," said Norton. "He can tell the new defense secretary to finish the job your predecessor cancelled on the way out the door."
Tom Tarantino, policy director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America What, told lawmakers that actions like pulling out of the integrated health records system contributes to veterans' lack of faith in the VA system.
The VA's records system was already outdated even before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said. Some VA buildings are so heavily laden with paperwork that they face being condemned as a safety risk, Tarantino said.
He said it comes down to leadership. What is required, Tarantino said, is for someone in authority to decide that the integrated system is going to be done and follow through.
"This is not about putting a veteran on Mars," he said.