Lawmaker Hits DoD Over Failure to Merge Defense, VA Records Systems

In this July 31, 2015, photo, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth appears before the Chicago City Council's finance committee in Chicago. M. Spencer Green/AP
In this July 31, 2015, photo, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth appears before the Chicago City Council's finance committee in Chicago. M. Spencer Green/AP

Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, an Iraq War vet who lost her legs in combat and later worked for the Veterans Affairs Department before winning a seat in Congress, slammed the Defense Department on Tuesday for "rolling" the VA at budget time and hurting veterans by doing so.

 Duckworth, who spoke during a joint hearing of two House oversight and investigations subcommittees, criticized both departments over their failure to integrate their electronic health records but reserved her toughest comments for the DoD.

In her time with the VA, Duckworth said Pentagon leaders routinely stalled or effectively ended programs the VA wanted by dragging out the process.

"Week after week, and then when [discussions] went on to months, it would be a new one-star or a new two-star who would rotate in and the old one would leave," she said. "And the new one would come in and say I need a new study because I wasn't here for the all of those weekly meetings and I need a new study because we need to figure out what's going on."

Duckworth said the inefficient system wastes time and resources, and recounted how she had to disrobe before a VA physician's assistant on her first visit to show she was "still an amputee." The VA was not allowed to accept the DoD record of her injuries and amputations, she said, and had to see for itself.

"I'm not a gecko. They don't grow back," she quipped.

Duckworth serves on a Government Reform and Oversight Committee panel that joined with a House Veterans Affairs Committee subcommittee on Tuesday to look into the failure of the VA and DoD to develop an interoperable IT system that would enable them to access or share patient records in real time.

Lawmakers have grown increasingly frustrated with the departments in recent years over starts and stops in the project, including a decision two years ago to walk away from a single IT system they were to develop and deploy jointly. By the time they announced their decision -- in favor of going back to an earlier plan to modernize their legacy IT systems to become interoperable -- they had spent two years and more than $500 million on it.

Overall, the departments have been working toward interoperability for 17 years, according to the Government Accountability Office.

During Tuesday's hearing, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, chairman of the veterans affairs subcommittee on oversight, was among several lawmakers who pointed out that the departments missed a December 2014 deadline to achieve interoperability.

Christopher Miller, program executive officer for DoD's Healthcare Management Systems, said the deadline set in the National Defense Authorization Act did not take into consideration everything interoperability included. He said the DoD has met with the Armed Services committees and they are satisfied with DoD's explanation for not hitting the December deadline.

The NDAA language only talked about outpatient data, he said, without taking into consideration it would require accessibility and sharing of inpatient data, and making data available to health care providers who are not part of VA.

The DoD's system will be partly deployed during 2016, though making it worldwide will take several more years.

Miller also said the differing missions of the DoD and VA play a part in why they cannot develop a single working system.

"We've got to make sure it works on a submarine at periscope depth, or over a satcom in Afghanistan and taking care of children" in a stateside hospital, he said. "We have different operating environments. You're taking care of veterans in the United States CONUS. That environment doesn't exist in theater."

But lawmakers were not swayed by the argument.

"I believe two systems are a mistake," Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California, said. "I believe DoD should take [the VA system] and make it operational" where DoD requires it.

Valerie C. Melvin, director, Information Technology, for the General Accountability Office, told lawmakers during the hearing that the watchdog agency still does not know for certain why the DoD and VA concluded it made more sense to build out or develop their older system than build a single new one together.

The GAO has asked for the information but it has not been provided, she said.

"We would like to see the justification for why going back to two systems is better than a single system," she said.

Duckworth responded to the statement by formally asking the VA and DoD to provide the oversight committees with the information.

Duckworth accused DoD of defending its "turf" at the expense of veterans.

"It's disheartening to see the DoD bureaucracy routinely roll the VA over and over again," she said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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