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American Forces Press Service

Hagel Pledges Partnership in Health Records Integration

By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2013 – Defense leaders will work closely with Veterans Affairs Department counterparts to ensure full integration of health records, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said yesterday.

Hagel and VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki took part in a roundtable discussion on veterans health benefits claims with members of the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee. During the meeting, Hagel explained the work Pentagon officials have done to integrate DOD records systems with VA's to ensure seamless data flow. He also outlined steps the department is taking to adjust recordkeeping procedures as it aims to prevent future backlogs.

Pentagon leaders are responsible for making sure that as service members transition to veteran status, they're "not only cared for, but treated fairly," the secretary noted.

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters yesterday the challenge facing DOD and VA exists on two fronts. First, they must seamlessly integrate their health-record sharing, so service member records transfer smoothly to the VA system as troops leave active duty. Second, each agency also needs to modernize the networked software system it uses to produce records.

Kendall said the first issue's solution, which involves replacing read-only records DOD sends to VA with live-data records, is well underway.

"We've made an investment in that which is paying off," he said. "We have a relatively short-term goal of having integrated, seamless records with the VA by the end of this year."

The second part of the solution will involve upgrading the networked software system DOD uses in its clinics and hospitals to track patient care and produce medical records. Kendall announced yesterday that Hagel has decided to seek a commercial firm to provide that software, which will be fully compatible with VA's system. Market research turned up 20 firms interested in the proposal, Kendall said.

"So we think we have a rich field to pick from, and we can make a best value determination for DOD," the undersecretary noted.

After yesterday's roundtable, Hagel indicated he'll tackle health records with the same approach he has taken to other major issues, including sexual assault in the military: listening to those who know the subject best, collaborating to identify problem points and possible solutions, and establishing and maintaining accountability.

Most of the backlogged veteran health benefits claims now in the system are from pre-Iraq and Afghanistan service records, Hagel told committee members yesterday. As efforts to clear that backlog continue, he added, defense and VA staffs also are working to ensure current and future health records are fully transferrable between the two agencies.

Digitizing and integrating records dating back several decades is a big challenge facing both DOD and VA, Hagel acknowledged.

"We've got a lot to do. We haven't done everything. We get that; we understand that. … But the cooperation has been there. It will continue," he said.

Hagel noted he has sought out and listened to VA and DOD health care providers and benefits specialists to learn "what are we not doing, what we need to do more of, what are the expectations."

With a plan in place to address both past and future complications in health records management, Hagel said, DOD and VA are committed to maintaining rapid progress toward fully solving compatibility issues.

"It's working, it's collaborating, which we will continue to do," Hagel said. "[Shinseki] and I are pledged to do that. Our organizations are."

He concluded, "I want to assure you, as I have Secretary Shinseki and members of Congress, that DOD will be a full partner, a responsible partner, understanding our piece of this, and we intend to be successful."

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