Defense and VA: Failure to communicate

Imagine that you’re finishing up several years of service in the military. You may have served on a submarine in the Navy, on the ground in Afghanistan, or at one of our military bases at home or abroad. Let’s also say that, during your time there, you hurt yourself—a combat wound or a training injury. You have surgery, and go through months or years of physical therapy and rehabilitation. You serve out the remainder of your military career and go back home to your family. Sooner or later, you make a trip to the VA for a checkup. Once you’re there, you find a bureaucratic nightmare.

Your medical records—the list of every procedure, medication, and consultation you’ve had—are inaccessible.  Your record is filed on the Department of Defense’s system, and your doctor at the VA can’t access it. You might think that this doesn’t make much sense—and you’d be right. It’s unacceptable that in 2014, when we can use an app on our phone to order food or book a flight, a doctor treating a veteran can’t easily access all the information that he or she needs.

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Unfortunately, many veterans find themselves in this situation. The VA and the DoD—while both providing quality service—have electronic health record systems that don’t communicate with each other. When an active duty serviceman or woman leaves the military and enters the VA system, they carry their health care needs with them. Far too often, their records don’t follow. This means that the information that VA physicians need is stored in a file in the DoD’s system, inaccessible to the doctors that need it most. This complicates everything from writing prescriptions to scheduling what needs to be treated in follow-up appointments—all because doctors don’t have a complete picture of their patient’s medical history.

There’s a simple solution to this: make the DoD and VA systems interoperable. The VistA system that the VA currently uses is a great starting point. It manages the medical records for over 8 million veterans at 163 hospitals, over 800 clinics, and 135 nursing homes around the country.

Because of new veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, advances in treatment of PTSD, and an aging cohort of Vietnam veterans, more veterans than ever using the VA’s services. This means that an interoperable electronic health records system is more important than ever.

The House is working to fix this problem.  This year’s Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill—on the floor this week—requires the VA to report on their progress with this interoperable VistA system before the VA receives 75 percent of the IT money they have requested .When it comes to the floor. I expect the Defense Appropriations bill will contain similar language directing the DoD to move toward this interoperable system.

The men and women in our armed forces make tremendous sacrifices. They spend years in some of the most inhospitable places on the planet, surrounded by people who wish to do them harm. It should be one of Congress’s highest priorities to provide for their peace of mind and quality of life from recruitment to retirement. These are tough budgetary times, but providing for the military and our veterans is a duty that we simply cannot neglect. Today’s MilCon-VA bill addresses the challenges faced by the VA. It provides additional funding to tackle its most critical problems and ensures that it can continue to provide care for millions of veterans and their families. And most importantly, it ensures that we treat our 21st-century veterans with 21st-century technology. I hope my colleagues in the House will join me in supporting this bill.

Culberson has represented Texas's 7th Congressional District since 2001. He sits on the Appropriations Committee.