Under fire from Congress for the Defense Department’s contributing role in the Veterans Affairs Department’s disability claims morass, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told House lawmakers Tuesday that DoD is “restructuring” relevant offices and responsibilities to ensure quicker delivery of medical records to VA.
Promising an announcement of the changes within 30 days, Hagel acknowledged that the delay in electronic transfer of military medical records to VA is indefensible.
“We’re way behind. We will do better,” Hagel told members of the House defense appropriations panel.
The Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs committees sent letters to Hagel this month pressing for DoD and VA to adhere to a plan to improve the disability claims process by speeding records transfers to VA.
That plan, signed in February, requires DoD to hand over service treatment records to VA “immediately” and establish an electronics transfer capability for the records by the end of the year.
But the lawmakers noted that in some cases, veterans’ disability claims remain delayed because it takes up to 175 days for VA to receive complete records from the DoD.
“We support this initiative,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee members wrote. “We want to ensure that the resources required to execute remain in place. … We note that all concerns regarding funding of this initiative must be resolved promptly.”
Legislators did not say what percentage of VA’s 890,000 total claims — including 620,000 considered “backlogged,” or older than 125 days — require DoD records for processing.
The Pentagon is developing a “Health Artifact Information Management System,” consolidating and certifying military medical records and civilian treatment records before transferral to VA.
VA and DoD also are developing an integrated electronic health record system that eventually will include a service member’s medical record, from recruitment to death, if they remain in the DoD or VA health systems.
In February, the departments announced they were abandoning an ambitious plan to develop a $4 billion single electronic medical records system in favor of one that uses existing technology.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has said his department will use its current system, known as VISTA. He told Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee members Tuesday that VA is “awaiting DoD on the selection of its core system.”
“Both secretaries are pushing very hard on this,” Shinseki assured lawmakers.
On Wednesday, Hagel said he deferred a request for proposal on DoD’s core system because he “didn’t think we knew what the hell we were doing.”
“Until I get some understanding of this and some control of it, we’re not going to spend ay more money on it,” Hagel said. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t making progress — we are.”
In a hearing Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called the delays “unacceptable.”
“While some progress has been made, I am deeply concerned about the pace of this effort and the level of output produced,” Sanders told Shinseki. “The outcomes of this initiative impact nearly every aspect of VA’s operations, from claims processing to high quality health care delivery. We cannot afford to get this wrong.”