Washington D.CHouse Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith made the following statement at the Joint Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Hearing on DOD and VA Collaboration to Assist Service Members Returning to Civilian Life.  

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  I want to welcome our witnesses.  We have the experts from both Departments before us—Frank Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, who has been given the lead for the Defense Department on health information technology; Jessica L. Wright, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness; and Dr. Jonathan Woodson,  Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs and Director, TRICARE Management Activity; and Stephen Warren, Acting Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology; Robert Petzel,  Under Secretary for Health; and Danny Pummill, Deputy Undersecretary for Benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

“Hopefully, this panel will be able to address the myriad of concerns that have been raised as to why the two Departments have failed to achieve greater integration of health information technology systems, and other systems related to transitioning service members.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides health care and disability compensation, and other benefits to service members in behalf of their service.  VA depends on a myriad of information from the Department of Defense to determine eligibility for disability claims and to provide service-connected health care services.  However, the Department of Defense mission is to protect and defend our national security, which sometimes leads to differences between the two agencies in what and how information is collected, stored, and shared. 

“These differences need to be acknowledged, but they should not be the sole reason as to why the Departments cannot work together to achieve common goals.  The most recent example is the decision to abandon the effort to develop a single health information exchange system for the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs.  Nearly two years ago, the Secretaries made an announcement that both Departments would seek to establish a single health information system, only to change course again last month due to the estimated costs. 

“As a result, the Department of Defense returned to their efforts and completed an assessment of commercial and government systems to determine the best fit and cost for the Department of Defense.  While the Department of Veterans Affairs decided to continue to upgrade their current system.  Why couldn’t both Departments work together to conduct an assessment of the entire commercial and government systems to determine which best suited both Departments and provided the greatest interoperability between the two Departments?

“This is why the House Armed Services Committee, in cooperation with the House Veterans Affairs Committee and the House Committee on Appropriations, developed language that requires a single core technology that has the technical capability to bring evidence-based medicine to the point of care and provides functionality for multiple care venues.

“While addressing the need for a single core technology platform for health care data is important, we should be clear that it will not resolve the VA’s disability claims backlog.  Service members from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts comprise 23 percent of the current backlog, and their records are potentially easier to access as most of their health care and service records are stored in some sort of electronic format.  The bulk of the disability backlog facing the Department of Veterans Affairs are from earlier conflicts and these records are more difficult to compiled as many have been turned over to the National Personnel Records Center.  Challenges with obtaining information from those serving in National Guard and Reserve units have also lead to delays in disability claims processing.

“I look forward to today’s testimony and learning more about what must be done to ensure that the two Departments continue to work together, in a way the recognizes the differences in the two agencies but yet achieves a common goal—which is to support our men and women in uniform as they transition back into their civilian lives.  I look forward to a frank and open discussion.”