Congressional Democrats said they felt blindsidedÂ by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA’s) decision this week to pushÂ off its go-live date for a new $16 billion medical records system.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Technology Modernization plans to hold a hearing in the next few weeks to scrutinize the VA’s decision to delay the platform’s rollout,Â Susie Lee, D-Nevada,Â chairwoman of the subcommittee, announced.
The VA had planned to flip the switch on the new electronic health record (EHR) at its first siteâ€”Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washingtonâ€”on March 28. But the VA announced this week it’s delaying plans to commence end-user training, which may impact â€śgoing liveâ€ť with its EHRÂ in March in Washington.
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“After rigorous testing of our new EHR, the department will need more time to complete the system build and ensure clinicians and other users are properly trained on it,”Â VA spokesperson Christina Mandreucci told FierceHealthcare in an emailed statement.
“We believe we are 75-80% complete in this regard and will be announcing a revised ‘go-live’Â schedule in the coming weeks,” she said.
Lee said during a hearing on VA’s data privacy policies WednesdayÂ that the VA needs to be “forthright about its progress, identify concerns, and notify Congress about any challenges.”
“Iâ€™ve long said that getting it right is far more important than hitting a date on a calendar. If there needs to be a delayÂ to get the system to a place where veterans’ lives areÂ not at risk and VA staff are ready to use it, thatâ€™s the right thing to do,” she said.
She added, “However, Iâ€™m concerned that as we have moved closer to the go-live date, we were told repeatedly there were no show-stoppers in implementation, thatÂ testing was going great, and that things were on track.”
Politico reported that the committee’sÂ staff said the VA had not mentioned the possibility of delay in recent meetings. When the department informedÂ Lee of the decision, VA officials employed inconsistent explanations, committee staff told Politico.
Lee acknowledged that software development and testing conditions can change rapidly, but the committeeÂ requires “transparency and for the VA to be accountable for its actions.”Â
She also noted that President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would “speed up” the EHR project rollout.
The VAÂ signed a $10 billion deal with Cerner in May 2018Â to move from the VAâ€™s customized VistA platform to an off-the-shelf EHR to alignÂ the countryâ€™s largest health system with the Department of Defense,Â which has already started integrating Cernerâ€™s MHS Genesis system.
For the VA, theÂ Cerner EHR willÂ replace the approximately 130 operational instances of VistA currently in use across the department.Â While the initial EHR contract signed with Cerner was forÂ $10 billion, the VA has pushed the estimated 10-year cost for implementing theÂ system past $16 billion.
The VA’s delay comes a week after a key VA EHR project leader, former VA Deputy Secretary JamesÂ Byrne, wasÂ abruptly dismissed. In his five months at the agency, ByrneÂ was a key leaderÂ updating members of Congress on the progress and challenges of the implementation.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisleÂ want more answers on why the department pushed off its go-live date for the multibillion dollarÂ medical records system.
Rep. Jim Banks, R-Indiana, ranking member of the committee, said during the hearing that he supported VA Secretary Robert Wilkie’s decision to delay the EHR launch but was disappointed that no VA officials in charge of the EHR project attended Wednesday’s hearing, as lawmakers had requested.
Rep. Phil Roe, M.D., R-Tennessee, the ranking member of the House Committee on Veteransâ€™ Affairs and a member of the subcommittee, said VA’s decision to delay the project highlighted the need for lawmakers to ramp upÂ oversight of the project.
Sen.Â Jon Tester, the ranking member of the Senate Veteransâ€™ Affairs Committee, said in a statement that, â€śVA must establish stable leadership to provide sufficient accountability and robust oversight of this process.â€ť
Mark Takano, D-California, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Technology Modernization, said he supported VA leadership takingÂ the time theyÂ needÂ to get the $16 billion dollar implementation right, but leaders needÂ to be transparent with Congress.
During Wednesday’s hearing,Â Paul Cunningham, the VA’s deputy assistant secretary and chief information security officer, testified that he was made aware of the EHR project delay on Tuesday.
The delay was more a “tactical decision” than a result of a lack of resources, he said, while acknowledging that the project was “outside his purview.”