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A push for veterans’ access to health data

Vt. congressman cosponsors bill

MONTPELIER — US Representative Peter Welch said Monday that he is cosponsoring a bill that would require the US Department of Veterans Affairs and the US Defense Department to find a better way to share health information so veterans can have better access to their military health records.

Delays in gaining access to the records can sometimes cause delays in getting VA benefits, said Welch, a Vermont Democrat.

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‘‘This bill would put into legislation what the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs have agreed to do and have been trying to do for 15 years,’’ Welch said. ‘‘And that is, make a seamless, one-stop-shopping medical record for all of our veterans.’’

He announced his support for the 21st Century Health Care for Heroes Act at a press conference in Montpelier.

Under the current system, active-duty military personnel get a medical record, Welch said. When they leave the service, the Veterans Administration has a difficult time getting the records needed to provide veterans with their entitled benefits.

‘‘The notion that you don’t have a seamless medical record is really a head scratcher for people across this country,’’ Welch said.

Main sponsor of the bill is US Representative Chris Gibson, Republican of New York, a 24-year military veteran. In a letter to House colleagues seeking support for the legislation, Gibson said the Defense Department and VA had been working since 1998 to exchange patient health information electronically. But in February the two departments announced they would focus on integrating their existing systems by next year. He said legislation is needed to require the two groups to achieve that goal.

‘The notion that you don’t have a seamless medical record is really a head scratcher for people across this country.’

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‘‘I have seen far too often veterans in my district facing unacceptable wait times for their VA claims,’’ Gibson said in a statement Monday. ‘‘We have been promised an integrated system for far too long, and this legislation — supported by a bipartisan group of members, including other veterans and doctors — is common sense.’’

Enabling the two departments to work together will lead to doctors and patients being able to view the information anytime and from anywhere, Acting Under Secretary of Defense Jessica Wright and Assistant Secretary of Defense Jonathan Woodson said in a joint statement to two House committees earlier this month.

‘‘Our service members, veterans, retirees, and eligible family members deserve nothing less than the best possible care and service our two departments can provide. Successfully achieving the goals articulated by Congress and the president is fundamental to delivering on our promise to them, and we are fully committed to doing so,’’ they said.

Welch was joined Monday by advocates for Vermont veterans. Richard Reed, director of Vermont’s Office of Veterans Affairs, said his office had seen a number of cases of veterans discharged in the last decade having their benefits delayed because of problems in getting access to records.

Reed said claims stemming from combat wounds are rarely delayed because they are obvious.

‘‘What’s more common is the soldier has injured their knees. In Afghanistan the soil is awful, it’s rocky; they’re carrying heavy weights on their backs, they wear their knees out, they hurt their backs,’’ Reed said. ‘‘Hidden injuries are much harder to adjudicate without those records.’’

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