Department officials on Friday announced that deployment of the new system to the VA Central Ohio Healthcare System, which was supposed to take place on March 5, will instead be pushed back almost two months to April 30.
Officials said this time the reason for the move is not any concerns about the records system itself, but instead worries that staff absences and attendance limitations because of the recent nationwide surge in coronavirus cases will impede training time needed before the activation.
“As we see the pandemic surge in the Columbus community, we need to support the medical professionals while they focus their attention on meeting the health care needs of their patients,” said Dr. Terry Adirim, program executive director of the Electronic Health Record Modernization Integration Office, in a statement.
“[Health record] deployment activities must be weighed against community health and can be resumed when it is appropriate to do so.”
The news is the latest setback for the electronic records rollout, which was paused last summer amid growing concerns that staff were unable to use the new system without potentially jeopardizing patient health.
In December, VA leaders announced a new deployment schedule for the system — based on the Cerner Millennium software platform, the same one being used by Defense Department officials — that would start with Ohio facilities in March.
They also unveiled a newly restructured office overseeing the work and new training plans to fix problems found with the initial deployment of the software in Washington state VA facilities in 2020.
Department officials said they are hopeful that the two-month delay in the Ohio rollout will not affect the rest of the deployment schedule for the software. The VA medical center in Walla Walla, Wash., is still on track to begin later this spring.
But officials admitted that if the latest surge in coronavirus cases lingers, it could disrupt other parts of the schedule.
The tentative timeline has the new records system being used in 12 VA medical centers by the end of 2022 and 21 more by the end of 2023. Department leaders said they are optimistic that the software will be in use throughout VA sites by the end of fiscal 2028.
Covid cases have skyrocketed throughout the VA health care system in recent weeks. As of Thursday night, more than 72,000 department patients and staff had active cases of the virus, up 584 percent from the month before.
In the VA Central Ohio Healthcare System alone, about 209 employees are “unable to work” because of virus infections. Officials said that adding medical records training during this pandemic surge “would risk significant impact to health care operations at the facility and the ability of staff to adequately serve veterans.”
The 10-year, $16-billion medical records project was announced by then-President Donald Trump in 2017 as a way to get VA and military health officials on the same medical records system for the first time.
However, several members of Congress have questioned the cost and implementation of the program since then, and promised continued scrutiny to ensure the effort does turn into a multi-billion-dollar disaster.
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.