The extended pursuit of a seamless process for getting departing servicemembers’ complete health records into the hands of the Department of Veterans Affairs took yet another turn on Wednesday when the Pentagon announced it was shopping for a new health records system.
The announcement came even as members of both the House and Senate held press conferences to voice their commitment to ending the VA’s disability claims backlog, which both VA and Pentagon officials acknowledge is partly due to incompatible records systems between agencies.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said his decision to look at a new health records system “does relate to some extent to the backlog, but it’s not directed at the backlog. In many ways it’s about the future, so we don’t have backlogs.”
One source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the new system will cost billions over the life of the contract.
Hagel’s move comes as the backlog increasingly gains traction with Congress. On Wednesday, it was the sole agenda item for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, where Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said the number has dropped by about 50,000 claims.
The backlog also was the subject of a roundtable discussion among Hagel, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, and members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi also raised the topics at a special press conference attended by House Democrats.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who chairs the Senate Appropriations committee, said the first legislation her group would pass this June would be the VA budget as a way to show their commitment to veterans.
Mikulski was joined during the press conference by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-SD, who chairs the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., ranking member of that subcommittee. These three joined other subcommittee members at the roundtable.
On the House side, members of the Veterans Affairs Committee went before the press to highlight a “package” of bills they were submitting aimed at improving the backlog situation and helping vets awaiting decisions on their claims.
One bill, filed by Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., would allow vets claiming multiple conditions to begin receiving payments when each claim is approved. Currently, veterans may begin receiving compensation only after all their claims have been adjudicated.
Until recently, the backlog and attempts by the VA to bring it down have been issues dealt with few lawmakers outside the two houses’ veterans’ affairs committees.
Hagel made his first public comment about a new Defense Department health system at a press conference following the roundtable. The Defense Department had announced the decision earlier in the day.
The defense secretary told reporters that he and Shinseki have worked very closely together, and that there is cooperation between the two departments.
Shinseki spoke for less than two minutes, reiterating that the backlog was unacceptable and that VA is committed to ending it. He made no mention of Hagel’s decision, though the department has made no secret of the fact it hoped the Pentagon would develop a new system based on the VA’s Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, otherwise known as VISTA.
That appeared to be the plan up until February, when outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the Defense Department would be going its own way. He said a new Defense Department system would still be able to share data with the VA.
Shortly after taking over from Panetta, Hagel said he wanted to rethink the Defense Department’s strategy. That, along with the fact Hagel once served as a VA deputy administrator, gave some at the department hope that he would opt for VISTA.
The VA’s records system, when it came online more than a decade ago, was hailed as top notch. It is continuing to upgrade and modernize that system, but DoD believes its needs would be better met with something entirely new, Hagel told the roundtable meeting, according to a draft copy of his remarks given to Military.com.
“As you know, VA made a decision to modernize around its legacy VISTA records system,” Hagel said in draft remarks. “Given the VA’s installed base, trained workforce, and in-house expertise, choosing VISTA was a good approach for VA. DoD faces a different situation.”
Hagel’s remarks did not offer details, but one DoD source said department officials do not believe they could adapt VISTA and broaden it to meet DoD requirements for a system at every level, from the combat theater to a field hospital to a stateside medical facility.