Meet Chuck Hagel, early proponent of electronic health records

The Defense secretary nominee played a key role in developing VA’s system.

Back in 1982, when few organizations used electronic health records, Chuck Hagel, at the time deputy director of the Veterans Affairs Administration, played a key role in developing what became the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture -- the department’s electronic health record.

Tom Munnecke, one of the early VistA developers, wrote in his blog yesterday that Hagel, nominated today by President Obama to become secretary of Defense, provided the top level backing for a grass roots system based on the MUMPS operating system, which became today’s VistA, and he should rightfully be considered one of the fathers of the system.

Dr. Don Curtis, the VA medical director at the time, called the VistA developers an “underground railroad,” Munnecke said. On Feb. 1, 1982, Hagel was honored at a banquet with a certificate for “Unlimited Free Passage on the Underground VA MUMPS Underground Railroad.”

Then Congressman Sonny Montgomery, D-Miss., at the time Chairman of the House VA Committee, also credited Hagel for his role in development of VistA in a letter read at that banquet. Munnecke said he views Hagel as a “natural and charismatic leader” who had the vision to back “the unknown skunkworks out of which VistA sprang.”

If confirmed, this decades-old experience gives Hagel real insight into a key VA-Defense project, a joint electronic health record slated for full deployment in 2017.

Munnecke ended his post with an offer by the VistA develpers to aid development of the joint record systems. “And Chuck: If you are reading this, there is no expiration date on this certificate. If you need the help of the Underground Railroad to help straighten out the VA/DoD EHR mess, we’re ready to help. I figure we could save the DoD $10 billion or so. And if the code we wrote back then might have aged a bit, I think that the principles we espoused are even more current in today’s federal health IT environment.”