Presidential commitment to open source still unclear

Most of the gains announced today could still be taken away, and advocates of open source need to keep their eyes open and fingers ready to protest any detour off the open source road.

The President's announcement of a coordinated system of Electronic Medical Records for both soldiers and veterans could be a big win for open source.

As ZDNet Healthcare reported early this week the military and VA records will transfer under NHIN-CONNECT.

While the network was created under a contract to Harris Corp., it features the GlassFish open source application platform, the Java Composite Application Platform Suite (CAPS) SOA Platform, and the Sun Java Identity Management suite.

The place of open source in the final EMR system, however, remains unclear.

Defense offers medical care through an insurance system called TRICARE, managed by a proprietary records system called AHLTA, contracted through Northrup-Grumman. The Veterans Administration is a single-payer health care system managed by an open source records system called VISTA.

Between them the two agencies control a substantial part of the healthcare market and, as a result, a big hunk of the coming Electronic Medical Record (EMR) market. VISTA was first created in the 1970s, long before open source contracts existed, and the software was originally published as public record.

The two agencies have been promising to unite their record systems for a decade, with work on a transfer system starting in 2004 and architectural work beginning just last year.

But ZDNet Healthcare reported in the summer of 2008 it appeared the military procurement system would win, and a proprietary contract might be signed that would sunset VISTA.

Then in September a Mother Jones report called AHLTA a $20 billion boondoggle, and momentum for implementation slowed through the election season and transition.

Now the push is on again, and at minimum, the Joint Virtual Lifetime Record now under development will be transferred in a network based on open source.

With the Defense Department itself now moving to support open source tools, even more is possible.

But it is far too early for open source advocates to celebrate. Big decisions have to be made, especially on whether the VA will work to improve VISTA or scrap it for some proprietary EMR software. The VA switched its lab software to a Cerner contract a few years ago, bypassing VISTA entirely.

Most of the gains announced today, in other words, could still be taken away, and advocates of open source need to keep their eyes open and fingers ready to protest any detour off the open source road. Because if VISTA goes down, so does much of the government's open source development effort, going back 30 years.


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