New VA tool welcome sight amid interoperability struggle with DoD

For years, federal officials have given the U.S. departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs flak for failing to make their electronic health record systems interoperable. The decibel level of such complaints rose astronomically following a February 2013 decision to abandon development of a joint EHR, and has grown deafening in recent months as the push for interoperability of all health records systems continues to gain steam throughout the halls of Congress.

Just last week, in fact:

  • David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office, slammed the lack of progress by DoD and VA as wasteful in testimony before the House subcommittees on Government Operations and Information Technology; and
  • An amendment was added to the Senate's National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 requiring interoperability between the agencies' systems

That's why the VA's planned launch of its new Enterprise Health Management Platform--demonstrated last week by the agency--is such a breath of fresh air.

The EHMP is a Web-based system that uses apps or widgets to provide data. It will share information with the Department of Defense's health records, and also will allow caregivers in the VA system to have access to their patients' records across the agency's facilities.

What's more, EHMP is an in-house project for the VA and is open source.

"What we have not always done, and we are creating now, is a system for providers at the point of care taking care of veterans that natively integrates all of the data from both sides," David Waltman, a senior advisor to the undersecretary for health on IT issues, said during the demo. He hopes full access to the program will be available by 2017.

Two of the three vendors still vying for the Pentagon's coveted $11 billion health record contract, when talking to FierceEMR earlier this year about how their potential systems would interoperate with the VA's health records system, cited Healtheway as the most likely path, at least initially.

But legislators at a Senate hearing last month focusing on interoperability were none too happy about the prospect of potentially paying a king's ransom to implement an EHR system that isn't already fully able to share health information with the VA--or any other provider. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) asked National Coordinator for Health IT Karen DeSalvo about the potential lack of interoperability, noting that two of the finalists for the contract--Epic and Cerner--were identified as companies that lack interoperability in a recent ONC report on information blocking.

"I feel like we're in a thicket here and we can't get out," Cassidy said. "We're about to spend $11 billion on a system that the VA's system is not interoperable with? Please tell me that I'm absolutely wrong."

The VA had a horse in the race, too, until February, when PwC's solution--which was to be built based on the open-source technology of the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA)--was eliminated from contention.

EHMP appears to be a potential solution to some of those problems, at least between the VA and the DoD.

As for interoperability between the DoD and other organizations, we'll just have to wait and see. - Dan (@Dan_Bowman and @FierceHealthIT)