Pentagon to Buy Records System Amid Veteran Groups Concerns

The Pentagon plans to buy an electronic health-records system following increasing pressure from lawmakers to end a backlog in U.S. veterans’ disability claims.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel promised to work closely with Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to develop a “seamless system,” according to a Pentagon statement yesterday.

The Pentagon provided few details on its “software modernization,” and its plan raised concerns among U.S. lawmakers and veterans advocates who have pushed the agencies to build a single system for current and former troops’ health records.

“I’m disappointed in this decision prior to the Memorial Day weekend,” said Michael Michaud, a Maine Democrat and ranking minority member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “The Defense Department shouldn’t downplay the impact their records system has on the ability of our veterans to get a timely decision on their claim.”

It has taken about 250 days to process a claim, according to a February memo signed by Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, and Frederick Vollrath, a Pentagon official. Almost 175 of those days “are spent trying to secure” military service treatment records, according to the document obtained by Bloomberg.

Pentagon Role

The Defense Department isn’t a “major factor” in the veterans’ claims backlog, Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, told reporters yesterday. The Pentagon routinely provides the VA with records it needs to make benefit decisions within about 45 days of when they’re requested, he said.

Joe Davis, spokesman for the Kansas City, Missouri-based Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the military is actually a “huge factor” in the bottleneck.

The VA relies on paper forms from the military to prove a disability is linked to a veteran’s service, and it “can only catch what it’s thrown,” Davis said in an e-mail.

The Pentagon should “look no further” than the VA’s records system, which works, he said. Military leaders have opposed adopting the veterans agency’s software for “parochial” reasons, he said.

‘Bad Money’

In February, Shinseki and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said they were scrapping efforts to build a single records system and would instead work to combine electronic health data, in part due to cost concerns. The estimated cost of the project had roughly doubled from initial projections of $4 billion to $6 billion, Roger Baker, the VA’s former chief information officer, has said.

“The Defense Department is throwing good money after bad money” if it buys its own records system, Tom Berger, executive director of the veterans health council for Silver Spring, Maryland-based Vietnam Veterans of America, said in an interview.

House lawmakers led by Michaud and Representative Jeff Miller, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman and a Florida Republican, yesterday renewed pressure for the departments to combine their electronic health records, calling on President Barack Obama to end “the bureaucratic back and forth on veterans’ records.”

The two agencies need to permanently merge electronic medical records to end the claims delays, which may be affecting veterans’ health, the lawmakers said in the letter. The House Appropriations Committee would require a single system as part of a VA funding bill.

Ten Bills

House lawmakers have introduced 10 bills designed to improve disability claims processing times. One measure requires the Pentagon to provide complete electronic records to the veterans agency within 21 days.

Veterans groups and lawmakers have stepped up their criticism of the claims backlog. Lawmakers held two press conferences yesterday, one led by Michaud and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. An event later in the afternoon was led by Senator Barbara Mikulski and drew Shinseki and Hagel, whose agency had announced plans for its health-records system earlier in the day.

Payments Delay

Pentagon officials didn’t say how much the system announced yesterday would cost or when it might be in place. The military’s current records system was criticized by the U.S. Government Accountability Office for its “speed, usability and availability.” The Defense Department had spent about $2 billion on the system at the time, the GAO said in October 2010.

Companies including Palo Alto, California-based Hewlett-Packard Co., Armonk, New York-based International Business Machines Corp. and McLean, Virginia-based SAIC Inc. have won contracts for work on the existing system.

The VA and Shinseki have faced mounting criticism over the backlog, which leaves most former troops waiting more than four months for payments tied to service-related injuries.

Jon Stewart, who hosts the “Daily Show” on Viacom Inc.’s Comedy Central television channel, called the delays “criminal” in a March episode.

The VA had almost 875,000 pending requests for disability and pension payments as of May 20. About two-thirds of the requests were more than 125 days old, the agency’s target for timely processing.

“We all agree that veterans wait too long to get the benefits they’ve earned,” Shinseki said during yesterday’s press conference at the U.S. Capitol.