WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are again raising concerns over the Department of Veterans Affairs planned overhaul of its electronic medical records systems after the program’s new leader abruptly quit last week.
In a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, Genevieve Morris — who had been charged with leading the department’s Office of Electronic Health Record Modernization — announced she was stepping down from the post because “it has become clear to me that VA’s leadership intends to take the EHR modernization effort in a different direction than we were headed.”
The move came about 40 days after Morris was named the head of the new office, launched to ensure an orderly changeover from the department’s existing health records system to a new one sharing the same underpinnings as the Department of Defense.
Just days earlier, the office’s chief medical officer, Ash Zenooz, also announced her planned departure from VA on Sept. 4. Morris said that her appointment “was always intended to be an interim solution” and did not offer concerns about the new VA leadership as a reason for her departure.
But the sudden moves have worried lawmakers that the 10-year, $10-billion-plus project may be facing bureaucratic challenges less than four months after department officials finalized contracts for the ambitious technology shift.
In a letter to Wilkie following Morris’ announcement, Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind. — who serves as the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Technology Modernization — expressed “great concern about the deteriorating and rudderless leadership” of the electronic records effort.
“It would be a tragedy for the program to be undermined by personality conflicts and bureaucratic power struggles before it even begins in earnest,” he wrote. “In fact, despite several requests, I was not even able to meet with the EHRM leadership team before these departures.”
The health records system overhaul has been touted by President Donald Trump as a major step towards fixing VA’s customer-service shortfalls, and was listed by Wilkie as one of his top programming priorities during his confirmation hearing before the Senate.
The goal is to bring both military and VA health records in line with each other, a proposal that has been discussed several times in the last decade but never executed.
In May, VA officials finalized a contract with the Missouri-based Cerner Corp. to transfer veterans’ health files to to the same MHS GENESIS system being deployed within the Defense Department. The work was delayed several months earlier this year following the firing of former VA Secretary David Shulkin.
VA officials said they do not expect any delays or complications with the records work related to Morris’ departure.
In a statement last week, Wilkie announced John Windom — a retired Navy captain who previously worked on Pentagon health files — would take over as acting chief health information officer for the new VA records office.
“OEHRM is focused on ensuring a successful transition from a legacy patient data system to a new electronic health record integrated across VA, the Department of Defense and the private sector,” Wilkie said.
Banks has requested a detailed organizational chart of the office by the end of next week. He has also petitioned the department to quickly select permanent replacements for the vacant leadership positions, and not rely too heavily on more interim staff.
Banks’ oversight subcommittee was created in July specifically to monitor the records transfer work. He also expressed concerns that along with the VA leadership vacancies, the OEHRM’s “rank and file positions are only sparsely filled, primarily with detailees.”
House members will return from their summer recess on Sept. 4.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.