Pentagon & Congress

VA delays launch of new electronic health records system

Rollout of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ new electronic health records system will be delayed for an undisclosed period while VA ensures it will work within the department’s current IT framework and trains employees to use it.

A VA official confirmed the delay Tuesday after lawmakers issued a press release late Monday praising the move, saying the “worst thing VA could do is jump the gun” implementing the system, built by Missouri-based Cerner Corp.

VA Press Secretary Christina Mandreucci said the department “heard the call” of lawmakers, including House Veterans Affairs Committee ranking Republican Phil Roe of Tennessee and Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., ranking member of the House VA Subcommittee on Technology Modernization, who urged VA to proceed cautiously.

"VA leaders … are proceeding deliberately and thoughtfully to adhere to the project’s ten-year timeline, which calls for a rolling implementation schedule through 2027,” Mandreucci said in a statement. “After rigorous testing of our new [electronic health records system], the department will need more time to complete the system build and ensure clinicians and other users are properly trained on it.”

Initial deployment was set to begin in March at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, Spokane, Wash., and in a briefing Monday on the fiscal 2021 proposed VA budget, senior department officials said the program was on schedule.

But same day, VA officials notified Congress that the initiative would be delayed.

Mandreucci said the system is 75 percent to 80 percent complete in regard to integration and training and a revised “go-live” schedule will be announced “in the coming weeks.”

The White House has requested $2.6 billion in new funding for the project in fiscal 2021, nearly half of that total for new equipment and infrastructure related to the records upgrades.

Roe and Banks applauded VA’s decision Monday, saying the department recognized that “more training and preparation is needed and [it is] taking the time to do get this right.”

”We hope that VA will be able to move forward with the complete Cerner system in Spokane to deliver the best possible veteran experience, and we look forward to continuing the committee’s oversight of this project to achieve a fully interoperable health records system for the millions of men and women who have served,” they wrote in a statement.

VA failed to reliably track spending on electronic health record system

The Department of Veteran Affairs says it spent $2.3 billion on its electronic health record system from fiscal 2015 through 2017, but the Government Accountability Office said it found only $1 billion of the spending to be “sufficiently reliable.”

Democrats on the committee, however, were less effusive, saying that VA had not been transparent about progress to date.

Rep. Susie Lee, a Democrat from Nevada, chairwoman of the House VA Subcommittee on Technology Modernization called for a hearing Tuesday to investigate the delay, saying Congress “needs to know we can take VA at its word.”

“As chair, I have repeatedly called for VA to be forthright about its progress, identify concerns, and notify Congress about any challenges,” Lee said in a statement. “Secretary Wilkie and I spoke this afternoon and he provided his reasoning behind the delay. While I respect the need to make this tough decision, I want to be sure that we have key action items and schedules to address these issues and roll out without harming our veterans.”

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano a Democrat from California, said, however, that a short-term delay is “far better than rushing through.”

“VA should take the time it needs to get this $16 billion dollar implementation right, but it needs to be transparent with Congress,” Takano said in a statement.

VA chose the Pacific Northwest for initial rollout of its $16 billion system to match the Department of Defense’s electronic health records program, also built by Cerner and introduced in Washington state in 2017.

Last week, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told reporters the department still planned to deploy the new system in March. The system is designed to be interoperable with the Department of Defense system as well as the VA’s other records systems.

“I sat down with the Secretary of Defense about a week ago to discuss where we are,” Wilkie told reporters. “This is a joint partnership with the Department of Defense. We are doing well, and Mission Act shows that this VA is capable of pulling off enormously complex programs. I expect us to do well with this venture, as we did with Mission.”

The Defense Department continues to expand its use of the platform, which it calls MHS Genesis. Last September, the system went live at four sites in the West, bringing the total number of military health facilities using it to seven.

Seven more DoD sites are expected to get the new system this June, including Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Fort Irwin, the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, and Edwards, Beale, Los Angeles and Vandenberg Air Force bases in California.

The remaining DoD facilities are expected to switch over in the next three years.

Military Times Deputy Editor Leo Shane contributed to this report.

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