Health records at the Department of Veterans Affairs will eventually move to the same system used by the Pentagon, the VA's top official announced Monday.
The move marks a shift from the VA's previous plan to develop its own system to digitize records. It will bring the agencies closer to sharing veterans' health information in an effort to solve a problem that has plagued the two departments for decades.
"The bottom line is we still don't have the ability to trade information seamlessly for our veteran patients and seamlessly execute a share plan of care with smooth handoffs," VA Secretary David Shulkin said in a statement announcing the plan.
"Without improved and consistently implemented national interoperability standards, VA and DoD will continue to face significant challenges if the departments remain on two different systems," he added.
Rather than go it alone, the VA plans to adopt the Pentagon's electronic records system, known as MHS Genesis, which the Defense Department acquired in 2015 as part of a contract worth as much as $9 billion over 18 years, officials said at the time.
VA officials didn't say how much the cost of adopting the technology would be -- nor announce when it was expected to be fully functional. The initial Pentagon rollout took nearly 18 months from the time the contract was announced, and the system will not be available at all Defense Department facilities until 2022, officials said early this year.
For the Pentagon, MHS Genesis provides integrated medical and dental health care records for all system patients and military health care providers, officials have said. Records stored in it can be shared with civilian providers who subscribe to the eHealth Exchange network. And patients can access lab results, messages from their doctors and any health records doctors choose to share through Tricare Online, officials have said.
However, the VA's version of the system will not completely mirror the Pentagon's, Shulkin said, because the former has "unique needs," such as partnership with a variety of community-based providers on different systems.
"Therefore we are embarking on creating something that has not been done before -- that is an integrated product that, while utilizing the DoD platform, will require a meaningful integration with other vendors to create a system that serves veterans in the best possible way," he said.
Although Shulkin did not lay out a timeline for the VA's 168 medical centers to adopt the system, he did announce a plan to circumvent a government open competition requirement for the contract -- a process that took the Pentagon some 26 months. That is time the VA does not have, he said.
"We simply can't afford to wait that long when it comes to the health of our veterans," he said. "Because of the urgency and the critical nature of this decision, I have decided that there is a public interest exception to the requirement for full and open competition in this technology acquisition."
The secretary said the agency will work directly with Cerner Corp., which owns the system.
President Donald Trump praised the announcement, calling it "one of the biggest wins for our veterans in decades."
"For decades, the federal government has struggled to accomplish something that should be very, very simple -- seamlessly transferring a veteran's medical records from the Defense Department to the veterans groups and to the VA," he said. "I'm very proud to say that we are finally taking steps to solve this situation once and for all."
The plan to modernize the records system does not come as a surprise. During remarks at a White House press conference last week, Shulkin said he would be making a decision on the fate of the VA's system "in the very near future."
-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at email@example.com.