Over 24 years ago, American leadership helped bring down the Berlin Wall without firing a shot. Now, our service members and veterans are up against a new wall, a wall of bureaucracy. This wall complicates nearly every facet of life as they transition from active duty service to veteran status.
This new year, we must renew our commitment to those who have served us. Our task begins by ensuring that their medical records, which document years or decades of service, seamlessly follow them from uniformed to veteran status. Last year, the House of Representatives began taking action to push both the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) to realize this goal.
Our troops face numerous challenges after they serve: transitioning to civilian life, finding a career, or continuing their education, to name just a few. Our veterans should not have to serve as couriers between the DoD and VA too. It’s an additional and unnecessary burden. We are all one nation and our agencies should operate like it. Unfortunately, in typical government fashion, our two biggest departments are still not fully capable of digitally communicating in the 21st century.
Early in his Presidency, President Obama charged these two departments to “build a seamless system of integration with a single goal: when a member of the Armed Forced separates from the military, he or she will no longer have to walk paperwork from a DoD duty station to a local VA health center; their electronic records will transition along with them and remain with them forever.”
Unfortunately, this original vision of one shared system for all our past and present service members has devolved into a series of missed milestones, shifting priorities, and ballooning budgets. The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee learned last year that these failures have led President Obama and both departments to abandon the original goal of one system, and instead plan continued reliance on separate systems integrated together to connect electronic health records.
I served as an Army combat surgeon in Iraq and I still serve as a Reservist. I know that my fellow military members, when they retire, should not have to continue to wage war at home against bureaucracies and paperwork. And yet, a doctor treating veterans cannot seamlessly access the medical history of their patient because that history is housed in a separate Defense Department system. VA doctors report that initial steps are improving this digital sharing, while still on separate systems. We can and must do better for our veterans.
As a physician of 26 years, I have firsthand experience with electronic health record systems – my practice undertook the transition in 2012. I know that every doctor wants to spend their time caring for patients, not navigating complex computer systems trying to hunt down vital medical histories.
These frustrations won’t disappear until the federal government achieves its stated goal of building an integrated system.
Last year, the House of Representatives actively worked to tackle these issues through the bipartisan H.R. 1960, which I was proud to help pass the House. Important sections call for basic interoperability capabilities within a year, meaning that doctors on both sides will be able to readily view medical history files.
By 2016, we are demanding full system integration between the two departments. These are essential steps towards realizing a system that seamlessly communicates medical history files between the departments, without forcing the burden on to the shoulders of our transitioning veterans. Ultimately, I believe one system will best serve our troops and veterans as they seek care, and full integration is steering the departments in the right direction.
Fully integrating these electric health records isn’t just about helping transitioning veterans, it’s also essential to reducing our veterans’ disability backlog. We know that fully developed disability claims, those with complete medical history files, take half the amount of time to complete compared to claims filed with incomplete or missing data.
It’s discouraging for our troops, our veterans, and our doctors to face a wall of bureaucracy that hinders care. They deserve a lasting solution that honors their legacy and service. I will continue pushing both federal agencies towards an integrated, and ultimately shared, system for our service members, veteran and uniformed.
Brad Wenstrup represents Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District and serves on both the House Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs Committees. He is currently a LTC in the Army Reserve.