Military and Veterans Affairs officials are still years away from fully sharing patient health records, even after almost two decades of work and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office released Wednesday.
But Defense Department officials said they're confident the two bureaucracies will reach that goal in the next two years, citing recent improvements to the system and planned advances in coming years.
The conflicting views frustrated members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who called the ongoing issue an embarrassment for the country and an unnecessary hardship for troops and veterans. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., questioned whether lawmakers will be holding the same hearing with the same concerns in another 24 months.
In April, both Department of Veterans Affairs VA and Defense Department leaders certified that all medical data in their systems met national standards for sharing with public and private health care systems.
Nine months earlier, the two bureaucracies announced a massive expansion of information being shared through their Joint Legacy Viewer tool, a major breakthrough in allowing physicians to compare different notes in their separate software systems.
But GAO officials said those advances still leave significant work ahead for full medical record sharing, noting that key documents like X-ray images and CT scans aren't easily transferred between agencies.
"In addition, VA's unsuccessful efforts over many years to modernize its VistA system raise concern about how the department can continue to justify the development and operation of an electronic health record system that is separate from the Defense Department's," their report states.
That has been a lingering point of contention between lawmakers and department officials since 2013, when VA and military leaders announced plans to abandon a $564 million project on joint medical records software due to its expense and lengthy production time frame.
VA and Defense Department leaders defended the decision again at Wednesday's hearing, saying the separate systems can be made fully interoperable faster and for less money than the effort building a new system would take. Committee members said they're skeptical.
The VA Department of Veterans Affairs is scheduled to adopt new, modernized electronic health records software in the next two years. Laverne Council, VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology, said she is confident both departments are on the right path, acknowledging the frustration of many veterans.
"We know that a veteran's complete health history is critical to providing seamless, high-quality integrated care and benefits," she told committee members. "And interoperability is the foundation of this capability."
Earlier this year, the committee included language in its draft of the annual VA budget plan restricting the use of nearly $260 million in technology modernization funds until the departments can show more progress on the issue.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.