VA delays launch of $16 billion electronic health record system

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Photo credit Photo by Senior Airman Kasey Zickmund
By Connecting Vets

The Department of Veterans Affairs told Congress Monday that it plans to delay the long-anticipated rollout of a $16 billion electronic health records system that was expected to go live next month.

VA said on Monday “members of Congress have urged the department not to rush its electronic health record (EHR) modernization efforts.”

“VA leaders have heard that call, and are proceeding deliberately and thoughtfully to adhere to the project’s ten-year timeline, which calls for a rolling implementation schedule through 2027,” VA spokeswoman Susan Carter told Connecting Vets. 

VA is specifically delaying plans to start training staff to use the new system, which was expected to go live next month at the Spokane, Wash. VA hospital. 

After testing the new EHR system, VA decided it will need “more time to complete the system build” and ensure doctors and other users “are properly trained on it.”

“We believe we are 75-80 percent complete,” Carter said. “(We) will be announcing a revised ‘go-live’ schedule in the coming weeks.” 

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told members of Congress on Monday about the delay, sources with knowledge of those conversations told Connecting Vets, which is expected to last at least through April. 

Since the system isn’t finished, if training began on schedule, VA staff and community care providers would have to train on “an unfinished version of the system.” 

Congressional staff said the pace of the project “has not been as rapid as hoped” and if the expected March 28 deadline had held, it was “very possible” that building and testing the system would have continued right up until the deadline, leaving “very little margin for error.” 

The new program is intended to create a unilateral computer system that will handle universal health records. From the moment a person enters the Armed Services, they will have one electronic health record (EHR) that follows them their entire lives, including as they transition out of the service and begin seeking care at the VA or with private healthcare.

Reps. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Jim Banks, R-Ind., ranking member of the committee’s subpanel on technology modernization released a joint statement Monday saying they support Wilkie’s decision to delay the EHR rollout. 

“With a project as complex, costly and impactful as this one, the worst thing VA could do is jump the gun,” they said. “We applaud VA for recognizing that more training and preparation is needed and taking the time to 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."

EHR contractor Cerner, the company responsible for building the new system, is still working on interconnectivity between the new health record system and other existing VA IT systems. 

Lawmakers have long been skeptical that VA would meet its deadline for universal health records, especially given past technology systems failings, but Democratic majority staff and lawmakers said Monday was the first they had heard of major problems, despite recent conversations with VA officials and Cerner.

The 10-year endeavor already meant VA had to continue to maintain costly existing programs dating back to the 1970s, and VA leaders told Congress last year they weren’t sure exactly how much it’s cost so far, though the Government Accountability Office said VA spent at least $2.3 billion maintaining the system in 2015-17.

Staff said VA informed them the delay is due to issues with VA’s private network of community healthcare providers “not being ready.” 

But after Wilkie dismissed the deputy secretary last week, staff said he told them he did a “deep dive” review of EHR readiness, spoke with leaders at the pilot VA hospital and decided to delay the launch. 

“As chair, I have repeatedly called for VA to be forthright about its progress, identify concerns, and notify Congress about any challenges,” Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., who serves as chairwoman of the House Veterans Affairs subpanel on technology modernization, said Monday evening. “We need to know we can take VA at its word. 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 the EHRM without harming our veterans.”

Lee called for a hearing to further investigate the issues.

“VA should take the time it needs to get this $16 billion dollar implementation right, but it needs to be transparent with Congress,” said House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif. “We are all charged to work on behalf of our nation’s veterans — a short term delay is far better than rushing through a critical EHR transition that will strongly impact veterans’ lives.”

Wilkie last week dismissed his deputy secretary, James Byrne, who was overseeing the electronic health record overhaul. At a news conference last week, Wilkie said he did not expect any of the projects Byrne was overseeing to be negatively affected by his dismissal. In a briefing Monday on the 2021 VA budget proposal, VA leadership said the EHR project was on schedule. 

President Donald Trump’s 2021 budget proposal released Monday includes nearly doubling the funding for the VA EHR modernization to $2.6 billion, an increase of $1.2 billion from the 2020 budget. 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.
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