Veterans Affairs hospitals won’t know until later this month whether they’ll see further delays in the department’s electronic medical records overhaul, a massive multi-year project hounded by questions of feasibility and cost.
On Wednesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced that officials had finished their three-month review of the $16 billion records program confirming “systemic failures” in the roll out of the effort so far.
“We’re very close to finalizing the next steps, including changes to the deployment effort to ensure that we come in on time, on budget and, most importantly, provide the best care for our veterans and the best experience for providers,” he said.
Those plans were expected to be announced on Wednesday, but McDonough said staff needs a few more weeks to make recommendations and changes. He informed lawmakers of the additional delay earlier this week and expects a public announcement in mid-July.
That likely means a delay of deploying the records system to the Columbus, Ohio, VA medical center. Work there was supposed to begin later this month.
While not announcing an official delay, McDonough noted that work is not likely to begin immediately after the new roll-out plan is unveiled.
The strategic review was launched in March, just a few weeks after the Government Accountability Office recommended postponing further expansion of the records project until lingering issues with the system were resolved.
GAO researchers noted that as of last fall, “VA was at risk of deploying a system that did not perform as intended and could negatively impact the likelihood of its successful adoption.”
The 10-year health records project — heavily touted by former President Donald Trump’s administration as a transformation effort for VA — is designed to bring veterans and military medical software into alignment, allowing for lifelong medical records for troops and veterans.
But deployment of the software has had a difficult start, with multiple delays in the initial site introductions of the records and numerous concerns raised by staff tasked with integrating the unfamiliar files and formats into their medical care plans.
McDonough said the review has shown the need for different approaches, but also emphasized that officials aren’t considering abandoning the records system, developed by Cerner, in favor of reverting to older options.
“We’re going to stick with this technology,” he said. “We support the decision to go with that.”
VA officials have already moved more than 24 million veteran health records into the new system. All VA facilities were expected to be using the system by the end of 2028. Whether that timeline will change with the new recommendations is unclear.
House appropriators earmarked $2.6 billion for the continued implementation of the electronic records system in their draft budget for VA released last week, about $26 million less than what the White House requested.
Appropriators said the money would “allow for intensive staff training, critical to the success of the effort” but the funding would also be tied to “GAO oversight of this program, to ensure that the EHR system is implemented in a timely manner.”
In a statement Wednesday, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Mike Bost, R-Ill., praised VA for stepping back to evaluate the work so far, but said improvements must be made.
Going forward, VA must demonstrate to Congress and veterans that this review was successful, and those problems are fixed,” he said. “Adjusting the organizational chart is not enough. The electronic health record must improve. We also expect transparency and reliability in the schedule and cost estimate.”
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.