By Hugh Lessig
The Obama administration has selected the Hampton VA Medical Center and a site in San Antonio as launch points for a massive medical record-sharing program between the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense.
The two areas will serve as test beds for what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta billed Monday as "the world's largest electronic health record system." He and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki made the announcement at a press conference in North Chicago.
The idea is to create a single electronic health record for men and women, starting from their time as active-duty service members to their transition into the VA health care system.
Allowing the two departments to share information is aimed at filling gaps and erasing mistakes in patient records, allowing doctors to make better-informed treatment decisions, officials said.
The federal government will begin implementing the program at those two locations starting in 2014. It is expected fully ramp up in three years.
DeAnne Seekins, Hampton VA director, said she and her staff learned of their selection about two weeks ago.
"The physicians are definitely excited about this," she said. "They recognize the importance of sharing information."
The program is known as the Integrated Electronic Health Record system. It is a key piece of a 2009 initiative announced by President Obama called the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record, or VLER.
The program is considered especially timely given the number of service members returning from Afghanistan in the coming months and years, increasing the workload at VA centers across the nation.
"The VA's requirements will continue to grow for a decade or more after the end of the mission," Shinseki said.
Hampton Roads not only has a large veteran population, but the Hampton VA already has experience as a pilot site for another records-sharing initiative, said Roger W. Baker, VA assistant secretary for information and technology.
That initiative shares information between the VA, the Defense Department and private-sector providers. Hampton Roads was selected as a pilot site for that project, and Baker said one example from that project shows how sharing records can save lives.
A private sector doctor who had access to VA records noticed that his patient had listed an allergy. The doctor wasn't aware of it, and it turned out that the patient had told the VA, but not the doctor, Baker said.
The rollout in 2014 will begin deliberately, as staff in both federal agencies test the technology. The first shared records will relate to immunizations and lab work, said Beth A. McGrath, deputy chief management officer, Department of Defense.
Panetta said that VA and DoD "must break down the barriers between our departments that prevent us from partnering to deliver the highest-quality health care to those who need it."
He and Shinseki made the announcement. at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center. The site is the first-ever partnership between the VA and the Defense Department that cares for active-duty military, their family members, military retirees and veterans under one roof.