WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon has decided to buy a new computerized health records system to be able to better share and merge its data with the Department of Veterans Affairs, but officials cautioned that it was part of a "long-term modernization" effort and would not help ease the backlog in VA disability claims.
The announcement Wednesday came on a day when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki were called to Capitol Hill to explain to frustrated lawmakers what progress they were making in speeding up decisions on disability claims applications.
Veterans groups and congressional lawmakers have criticized the VA for the number of disability claims pending longer than 125 days — about 570,000, nearly two-thirds of all claims pending.
Hagel and Shinseki acknowledged that there was a lot more work to do. But Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD., said a sense of urgency was needed. "We want fire in the belly from the agencies and we want action," she said.
Mikulski, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said all members of her committee were present to talk to Hagel and Shinseki in what she called a first-ever roundtable for every agency involved in veterans issues. That included the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration.
"We know they're stressed, we know they're strained," she said of the federal agencies. "But we have put a lot of money in the federal checkbook to make sure they have the right personnel and the right technology. Now they've got to use it in the right way to shrink this backlog."
Officials have said repeatedly that the backlog is owed at least in part to the lack of an integrated record system between the Pentagon and VA. The two departments have computer systems that don't talk to each other, delaying the transfer of service members' records when they leave the military and come under the VA's care.
The Pentagon said in a statement earlier Wednesday that Hagel had ordered the Defense Department to get bids for development of the new Pentagon health records system.
The statement said the new system — along with efforts already underway to speed up service to veterans — will improve continuity of care but does not address "the problem of the existing VA backlog."
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's undersecretary for acquisition, told reporters Wednesday that the Defense Department and the VA are continuing to work to integrate their records and are making progress. But he acknowledged that the two agencies differ on the separate matter of how best to modernize their computerized systems.
He said the VA would likely have preferred that the Pentagon adopt the VA system. And he added that, depending on the bidding process, the military could eventually end up with a system similar to the VA.
"Enough of this nonsense," said Rick Weidman of Vietnam Veterans of America, saying the Pentagon should take the VA system and work with VA to modernize it. "The time is way past to be spending taxpayer dollars on trying to develop a new system from scratch."
Frustrated by the continuing backlog, members of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs wrote to President Barack Obama on Wednesday asking him to help end "the bureaucratic back and forth" between the Pentagon and VA regarding health records.
"The time has come for ... the permanent merging of electronic health-care records," the letter said. "Select a system, pick a path and move forward."
It said the VA can't keep a promise to shorten the claims review period because of the length of time it takes to get records from the Pentagon.
Kendall said that at this point the Defense Department is responding within 45 days to VA requests for records to determine disability claims. Other defense officials say the Pentagon delays are not responsible for the bulk of the backlog.