Lawmakers told Veterans Affairs officials Thursday they aren’t overly worried about the delay in the department’s new electronic health records roll out last month. But they are worried another setback could happen before the next deadline.
“We have four months now to build, to test, to train, to deal with the infrastructure issues,” said Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., and chairwoman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s panel on technology. “We hope you get this right. This is an incredibly important project not just for VA, but for health care across the country.”
Three weeks ago, VA leaders announced they would postpone the planned March deployment of the department’s new health records system to the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Washington state. That step was to be a key early test for the 10-year, $16 billion system overhaul designed to bring VA medical records in line with military files.
The move initially drew tepid acceptance from members of Congress who urged responsible progress with the massive undertaking.
But this week, several lawmakers have expressed concerns that the delay seemed to come without warning, suggesting the department and health contractors haven’t done a good enough job communicating with them.
“A month ago I was told by Secretary (Robert) Wilkie that everything was on track with the electronic health record modernization modernization rollout with no anticipated issues, and just a week later we were told that the go-live was going to be postponed until July,” said committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif.
“VA has a responsibility to operate with transparency and accountability.”
Officials overseeing the records work on Thursday blamed the delay on infrastructure and training concerns, but expressed confidence they’ll be able to move ahead with work by July.
Already more than 23 million veteran health records have been transferred into the new system, according to Travis Dalton, president of Cerner Government Services, whose parent company is building the new records system.
“Incredible progress is being made,” he said. “We are supportive of the revised go-live schedule and the decision to take additional time for testing and end-user training. We heard the advice from this committee to take the time to get it right, and listened to the provider community.”
VA Assistant Secretary for Enterprise Integration Melissa Glynn, the latest department official overseeing the work, expressed similar confidence in the new schedule and the ability field the updated electronic medical records system nationwide in the next seven years.
But in a preview of upcoming oversight work on the transition, VA Deputy Inspector General David Case told lawmakers that his office has concerns that department hiring efforts have not kept pace with staffing needs regarding the changes and “patient care could be put at risk” when the new systems are deployed.
Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center officials told the inspector general’s office that they expect as much as a 30 percent drop in staff productivity for 18 months after the new systems are put in place.
The White House has requested $2.6 billion in new funding for the project in fiscal 2021, nearly half of that total for new equipment and infrastructure related to the records upgrades.
As lawmakers consider that budget request in coming months, Lee warned VA leaders, they’ll also expect detailed plans on ways to address lingering problems and potential disruptions, leading up to the new July roll-out date.
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.