McCain Cites Department of Veterans Affairs as Health IT Leader

Posted October 22, 2008 at 2:03pm

At the final presidential debate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) referred to a cause that he and Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) have joined along with President Bush: electronic health records.

“We need to put health care records online,” he said. “The VA does that. That will reduce costs.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs spent years developing a program called Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, which has been in place and working at its 150-plus hospitals since 1999.

VistA allows medical professionals at computers within the VA system to access veterans’ medical records. It has suffered few privacy violations. The software is also used by the Indian Health Service and is available to both government and private health care providers as well.

Developing a nationwide network of compatible software among tens of thousands of hospitals, pharmacies and doctors offices is something the VA doesn’t have to worry about. But it is one of the biggest problems in the private sector, where most hospitals still use paper records.

Bush first sought to take electronic medical records national in his 2004 State of the Union address.

“By computerizing health records, we can avoid dangerous medical mistakes, reduce costs and improve care,” he told Congress.

The president set a goal that most Americans would have access to electronic health records by 2014. In May 2004, he appointed the first national coordinator for health information technology.

In 2007 Dr. Robert Kolodner, the key player in the VA’s electronic records efforts, was named health IT czar. Kolodner has developed a plan for progress to be made from 2008 to 2012 and requested $66 million for fiscal 2009.

The presidential candidates agree that going paperless is a necessity, but it’s unclear how their commitments to making it a reality compare. While Obama has said he would set aside $50 billion over five years to build an integrated system, McCain hasn’t committed to an amount.

Meanwhile, the VA continues to make headway on personal medical records. Its My HealtheVet offers veterans a place to keep track of their medical history online, down to exercise routine and daily vitamins, and order medication through an online pharmacy.

The private sector has started to develop its own alternatives. Google and Microsoft have software similar to My HealtheVet: Google Health and Microsoft’s HealthVault let users update their records and decide whether to grant medical professionals access to them.