Congress set to boost budget for VA health services, technology

The Veterans Affairs Department's information technology budget could hit $2 billion, a $752 million increase from 2007, in the 2008 omnibus spending measure Congress will consider before it adjourns on Dec. 21. It includes $107 million more than the Bush administration's requested for electronic medical record interoperability with the Defense Department.

The bill, approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Sunday, also raises the agency's IT spending in 2008 by $141 million above levels originally approved in the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies appropriations bill, and $102 million above the amount appropriated by the Senate bill in legislation passed this June.

The House said the additional $107 million is aimed at improving the department's IT system "to help ensure medical information tracks patients as they transition from the Department of Defense health system to the VA health system."

The bill directs Defense and VA to submit a report to the House and Senate appropriations committees no later than April 1, 2008, detailing their actions to develop interoperable electronic medical records.

In an October report, the Government Accountability Office stated that VA and Defense have spent almost a decade pursuing ways to share electronic medical records, but "have faced considerable challenges in these efforts, leading to repeated changes in the focus of their initiatives and target completion dates."

Language in the omnibus spending bill, now under consideration by the House Rules Committee, includes $10.2 million for IT costs associated with new community-based veterans outpatient clinics, which the committee viewed as underfunded in the administration's budget request. The VA portion of the bill also includes $39.7 million to provide computers and IT support for the Veterans Benefits Administration to hire more claims processors to speed processing of backlogged disability claims.

The bill also calls for VA to add a direct link on its Web page that will allow veterans to seek assistance and provide feedback, and to set up separate toll-free number for VBA and the Veterans Health Administration so they can check on benefit eligibility, seek assistance in obtaining services and resolve problems.

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