The military services are getting better at the quick and accurate transfer of medical records to the VA to support benefits claims, but there's considerable room for improvement, according to the Pentagon's Inspector General.
In an update to a 2014 report on the transfers, the IG's office said Monday that the Defense Department as a whole has made "significant progress" on the handling of Service Treatment Records (STRs).
However, "We remain concerned by the significant number of STRs that were not transferred to the VA in a timely manner, which could delay the VA in approving benefit claims for service members," the latest audit said.
The report gives a breakdown for the services on the transfer of STRs, which are chronological records of all essential medical, dental and mental health care received by service members during their military careers.
The Department of Veterans Affairs uses STRs as official records to support continuity of health care and to determine eligibility for compensation benefits for active-duty and Reserve service members and those who have separated or retired.
The statistical samples used by the IG's office showed that, of 70,069 STRs transferred by the Army in fiscal 2016, 59,948 (86 percent) were transferred in a timely manner, and 64,619 (92 percent) were complete, compared to 17 percent and 67 percent respectively in 2014.
For the Navy, of 18,683 STRs transferred to the VA, 12,445 (67 percent) were handled in a timely manner and 16,815 (90 percent) were complete, compared to 22 percent and 56 percent respectively in 2014.
For the Marine Corps, of 19,181 STRs transferred to the VA, 15,558 (81 percent) were transferred in a timely manner and 17,476 (91 percent) were complete.
There was no comparison for the Corps to the 2014 audit by the IG's office. The IG noted that in 2014 the Navy was responsible for the transfer of both Navy and Marine STRs. In 2015, the Marine Corps began the transfer of STRs independent from the Navy.
The latest IG's report recommends that the services conduct periodic checks to ensure that STRs going to the VA are being delivered quickly and accurately.
The accurate transfer of medical records, and their maintenance at the VA, has taken on more importance as the VA expands the use of the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to opt for private care.
The White House’s Fiscal 2019 budget request for the VA, $198.6 billion, includes $1.2 billion to fund a new commercial electronic health records platform at the VA to make it interoperable with the DoD's system -- after several previous failed attempts that reportedly cost $2 billion.
At a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the VA's budget last week, VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin said, "We have got to make sure we got this one right."
The maintenance of electronic records that can be transferred smoothly between systems is "a challenge the American healthcare system hasn't figured out yet," Shulkin said. "We think VA can help lead this for the whole country by making this interoperable."
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told Shulkin that the committee expects success from the latest effort. He said it would be "unthinkable that VA could spend billions on a project that doesn't allow for seamless interoperability" with the DoD.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.