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What GAO Found

The Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Defense (DOD) have undertaken a number of patchwork efforts over the past 15 years to achieve interoperability (i.e., the ability to share data) of records between their information systems; however, these efforts have faced persistent challenges. The departments' early efforts to achieve interoperability included enabling DOD to electronically transfer service members' electronic health information to VA; allowing clinicians at both departments viewable access to records on shared patients; and developing an interface linking the departments' health data repositories. As GAO reported, however, several of these efforts were plagued by project planning and management weaknesses, inadequate accountability, and poor oversight, limiting their ability to realize full interoperability.

To further expedite data sharing, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 directed VA and DOD to jointly develop and implement fully interoperable electronic health record capabilities by September 30, 2009. The departments asserted that they met this goal, though they planned additional work to address clinicians' evolving needs. GAO identified weaknesses in the departments' management of these initiatives, such as a lack of defined performance goals and measures that would provide a comprehensive picture for managing progress. In addition, the departments' Interagency Program Office, which was established to be a single point of accountability for electronic health data sharing, had not fulfilled key management responsibilities.

In 2009, the departments began work on the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record initiative to enable access to all electronic records for service members transitioning from military to veteran status, and throughout their lives. To carry this out, the departments initiated several pilot programs but had not defined a comprehensive plan that defined the full scope of the effort or its projected cost and schedule. Further, in 2010, VA and DOD established a joint medical facility that was, among other things, to have certain information technology (IT) capabilities to facilitate interoperability of the departments' electronic health record systems. Deployment of these capabilities was delayed, however, and some have yet to be implemented.

In 2011, the VA and DOD Secretaries committed to developing a new common integrated electronic health record system, with a goal of implementing it across the departments by 2017. This approach would largely sidestep the challenges in trying to achieve interoperability between separate systems. However, in February 2013, the Secretaries announced that the departments would focus on modernizing their existing systems, rather than developing a single system. They cited cost savings and meeting needs sooner rather than later as reasons for this decision. Given the long history of challenges in achieving interoperability, this reversal of course raises concerns about the departments' ability to successfully collaborate to share electronic health information. Moreover, GAO has identified barriers to the departments jointly addressing their common needs arising from deficiencies in key IT management areas, which could continue to jeopardize their pursuits. GAO is monitoring the departments' progress in overcoming these barriers and has additional ongoing work to evaluate their activities to develop integrated electronic health record capabilities.

Why GAO Did This Study

VA and DOD operate two of the nation's largest health care systems-- systems that serve populations of veterans and active service members and their dependents. To better serve these populations, VA and DOD have been collaborating for about 15 years on a variety of initiatives to share data among the departments' health information systems. The use of IT to electronically collect, store, retrieve, and transfer such data has the potential to improve the quality and efficiency of health care. Particularly important in this regard is developing electronic health records that can be accessed throughout a patient's military and veteran status. Making such information electronic can ensure greater availability of health care information for service members and veterans at the time and place of care. Although they share many common business needs, both VA and DOD have spent large sums of money to develop and maintain separate electronic health record systems that they use to create and manage patient health information.

GAO was asked to testify on (1) the departments' efforts, and challenges faced, in electronically sharing health information and (2) the recent change in their approach to developing an integrated electronic health record. In preparing this statement, GAO relied primarily on previously published work in this area.

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Since 2001, GAO has made numerous recommendations to improve VA's and DOD's management of their efforts to share health information.

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