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To cut costs, Defense and VA scrap plans for new electronic health record

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki listens at right as outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks at the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki listens at right as outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks at the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. // Susan Walsh/AP

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki announced late Tuesday they would forgo plans to build a new health records system to be used jointly by the departments and instead pursue less expensive technologies to make their respective systems more interoperable.

The new approach will significantly cut costs and ultimately deliver better service to patients and medical professionals much sooner than originally planned, they said, although they didn’t provide any savings estimates.

“As you know, our two departments have been moving toward a plan to build a single customized, integrated electronic health record system from the ground up to meet the president’s directive and modernize our legacy IT systems,” Panetta said. But cost concerns pushed the two secretaries to look for a solution “for much less money than had been budgeted,” he said.

“Ric and I agreed to make a series of important changes to simplify this program, cut costs and to get our veterans the key benefits of this system much sooner. Rather than building a single integrated system from scratch, we will focus our immediate efforts on integrating VA and DoD health data as quickly as possible, by focusing on interoperability and using existing solutions,” he said.

By this summer, the departments will field test a common interface for doctors at seven joint rehabilitation centers across the country and expand its use at two additional sites. “All of these facilities will be interoperable by the end of July 2013, so [it’s a] fast time track, but we think we can get it done,” Panetta said.

Initially, Defense and VA planned to deploy the common integrated electronic health record by 2017, but in December, Shinseki and Panetta announced they would accelerate that schedule and deploy the iEHR in 2014, although they offered no details of how they would do so. Tuesday’s meeting hammered out some of those details.

Among the key milestones this year Panetta and Shinseki announced:

  • March: The departments will select a core set of iEHR capabilities.
  • May: Patients in both departments will be able to download their medical records in what is known as the Blue Button initiative.
  • September: The departments will have a common authoritative source for health data.
  • July: The Janus graphical user interface will be deployed at seven rehab sites.
  • December: Health care data will be standardized and the graphical user interface will be upgraded, enabling the real-time exchange of data between the two departments.  

“We have more work to do,” Shinseki said, noting, “we have brought our two departments closer together than ever before, and that’s good for our people.”

Integrating the departments’ health records has proved to be enormously complex.

“This is a struggle,” Panetta said. “Some have argued that we should build a perfect system. Some argued that we’ll never be able to do this. But for the first time, both DoD and VA have come together to say we can get this done, we can get it done in an effective way that does the job and does it in an expeditious way.”

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