WASHINGTON May 22 U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will ask the private sector to develop software to track troops' health records, part of an ambitious plan to create a system that is fully integrated with the one used by the nation's military veterans, a U.S. official told Reuters on Wednesday.
Hagel's decision is complicated and technical but goes to the core of President Barack Obama's goal to create an easier transition for troops as they leave the military and seek care at the VA.
The two bureaucracies - the largest in the U.S. government - are working toward someday fully integrating their electronic medical health records, something that would facilitate treatment for veterans and hopefully help speed some future VA disability claims decisions.
But they abandoned plans in February to create a new, single system because of concerns about project delays and budget pressure, stoking concern in Congress after years of investment. Officials said VA and Pentagon systems would still fully integrate electronic health records.
The VA decided it would pursue the goal by improving its existing "VistA" health records system and some lawmakers said the Department of Defense should do the same.
But Frank Kendall, under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told Reuters that Hagel wasn't ready to commit to VistA now and instead decided to bid the project out to the market to offer a range of options.
"What the secretary decided is that we will do a competition for the core elements of our healthcare software," Kendall said, adding the Pentagon would submit a request for proposals in the next few months and could choose a system within 18 months.
"I don't want to pin myself down to schedules but that's the kind of timeframe it normally takes us to do a procurement like this."
Kendall said the Pentagon's market research identified about 20 companies, only three of which have a VistA-based software it could offer.
Nita Lowey, a congresswoman from New York and the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, grilled Hagel last month on the issue, said it was reasonable to assume the Pentagon should either use VistA or a system that works seamlessly with it.
"If you pursue a different system, what guarantees do you have that it will work after five years of failure," she asked.
But Kendall said VistA, in its current form used by the VA, didn't meet the Pentagon's requirements and would need to be modernized regardless. Whether modernizing that system is the best bet for the Pentagon is an open question, he said.
"So there's some risk with that," Kendall said.
"The marketplace is moving toward smarter healthcare management systems that do more for the doctor. So we're a generation or two behind right now at DOD. And so is VA. So both are modernizing."
The move to a new software system comes as pressure builds on the Department of Veterans Affairs to address a pileup of claims by veterans seeking compensation for disabilities. Sometimes delays in obtaining health records from the Pentagon are factor in the delays.
But Kendall said the Pentagon's role in the backlog was minimal.
"We're a relatively small part of it. Our analysis is that it's in the order of five percent or so," he said.