By Niko Karvounis
September 14, 2008
Soldiers at the military hospital languished in part due to incompatible databases and dismal record keeping. Welcome to the Pentagon’s $20 billion medical-records boondoggle.
In February 2007, William Winkenwerder Jr. announced he was stepping down from his post as assistant secretary of defense for health affairs following a press conference in which he downplayed the Walter Reed scandal as a mere “quality-of-life experience.” In the months that followed, it seemed clear that Winkenwerder’s negligence may have been partly to blame for the deplorable conditions at the military hospital. Now, more than a year and half after his departure, Winkenwerder’s legacy lives on in a multibillion-dollar Defense Department medical-records management system that many military doctors believe is fatally flawed. One military physician, speaking anonymously, calls it “another Walter Reed-type scandal.”
The story of the Armed Forces Health Longitudinal Technology Application, or AHLTA, begins in 1997, when the Pentagon began to develop an updated version of the Composite Health Care System, a bare-bones electronic medical records (EMR) management program it had been working on for a decade to help military hospitals keep track of their patients. In 2000, the DOD signed a $60.6 million contract with an IT firm called Integic for the initial design and installation of an improved “CHCS II” system.
The Defense Department approved CHCS II in 2002. It introduced the system into military facilities in January 2004, under Winkenwerder’s oversight. By spring of that year, clinicians were already complaining that CHCS II processed data too slowly to be useful. Dissatisfaction grew vocal enough to raise rumors that the Pentagon was going to suspend use of the new system until it could be brought up to par.