The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are eyeing the end of the summer for significant advances in their efforts for a new, joint electronic health record, a move that both bureaucracies have made the long-term centerpiece of medical reforms for their patients.

On Monday, VA officials announced they have transferred the health records of 23.5 million veterans to Cerner Corp., the company behind the planned 10-year, $16 billion records modernization effort.

In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie called the move a key initial step in getting his department on the same records system as the military, a goal of both departments for decades that has remained frustratingly incomplete.

The 78 billion records transferred to the Missouri-based Cerner Corp. include lab results, pharmacy prescriptions, outpatient diagnoses and dozens of other data points. The private company will spend the rest of the summer processing those files in preparation for integration into the Defense Department’s common electronic health record system, MHS GENESIS.

Meanwhile, defense officials confirmed Tuesday that their next phase of site testing for MHS GENESIS will begin in September, just as the VA data integration work is nearing completion.

The military records overhaul is expected to be introduced at every military medical facility in waves over the next four years, although that timeline has already been pushed back due to initial fielding issues with the new systems.

The next wave of sites — California’s Naval Health Clinic Lemoore, Travis Air Force Base, Presidio of Monterey and Idaho’s Mountain Home Air Force Base — has been scheduled for the second half of 2019 for months, but program officials said during a conference call Tuesday that the work will move ahead after several adjustments based on past deployment issues.

“We changed our training strategy. We didn’t get that right the first time,” said William Tinston, head of the Program Executive Office for Defense Healthcare Management Systems. “So we dramatically changed that.

“We’ve created a change management process … and the other thing is the infrastructure, six months going live to the site, we have that updated to make sure it’s all working.”

Officials said they’ll rely more on peer-to-peer training in the next phase and subsequent deployments. Plans are for full fielding across all military medical sites by the end of 2023.

Leaders from both departments have received concerns from lawmakers over the connected electronic health record efforts, due to their cost, complexity and scope.

But both departments have maintained the end result will be the first truly shared medical records system for their agencies, providing a lifelong health file for service members from enlistment to separation from the military and throughout their lives as veterans.

Despite starting their phases of the project several years in advance of VA, Defense Department officials have not migrated all of their medical data into the Cerner systems.

Maj. Gen. Lee Payne, MHS Genesis Functional Champion at the Defense Health Agency, said typically during large-scale records migration projects, data is sent over periodic segments. He called VA’s decision to do a mass transfer intriguing, and potentially helpful for DoD’s future work.

The two agencies have said publicly they’re working closely on crafting the new records system to ensure it remains flexible to their individual needs but standardized enough to ensure information is easily shared across sites, government agencies, and even with private-sector doctors.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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