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The Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense are close to an agreement on a common standard for electronic health records (EHRs), a move that should drastically improve how the agencies share patient data, the VA's chief information officer told a congressional committee last week.
VA CIO Roger Baker said the two departments are weeks away from agreeing on a "single electronic health record." He made his comments in testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee during a Feb. 17 meeting about the VA's 2012 budget request.
"I believe that will happen... in the next month or two, and that will be a substantial push forward," he said. "I believe the two departments have never had a greater opportunity to nail this down and nail it shut."
The two departments have been widely criticized for the lack of interoperability between their health information systems and the difficulty it creates for sharing patient information between them.
Most recently, a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), released Feb. 2, said that while the two departments are conducting joint pilots to test a common digital-records system, they still face significant barriers to creating a joint, interoperable health IT infrastructure.
Baker also in his testimony provided an update on a project the two departments are working on called the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record (VLER) that is meant to create a common system for sharing patients' records from the time they begin care until the end of their lives.
The goal of VLER is to facilitate the sharing of patient information between the VA and DoD, as well as with private-sector organizations and other agencies such as the Social Security Administration that might need to access patient records, he said. The project will provide an EHR that stays with the patient from the beginning of their treatment throughout their lifetime and should be completed next year, Baker said.
As part of the VLER, the VA is working on a nationwide health information network for patients that will tie the private sector into the provisioning of information. This should help the department provide better benefits, he said.
The project also includes a Web portal for veterans with a private login they can use to access it as soon as they begin treatment. Like their records, the login stays with them "for their lifetime," Baker said.
Since Baker took his position last May, he's been working swiftly to reform IT operations at the VA. Among other things, the department has developed an IT accountability program that's saved millions in previously wasted IT costs and started reporting information about data breaches online to keep the department itself accountable for data security.
The agency also recently began seeking expert advice on how to update VistA (Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture), its massive, decades-old EHR system.