This article by Leo Shane III originally appeared on Military Times, the nation's largest independent newsroom dedicated to covering the military and veteran community.
Veterans Affairs officials aren’t planning to restart deployment of its new electronic health records system until at least next summer, but lawmakers are warning even that may be too optimistic, given continued software problems.
Leaders from the House and Senate are negotiating legislation that would mandate stricter oversight plus performance benchmarks for the embattled $10-billion medical records project, which remains stalled due to reliability and usability issues.
“It’s simple: this project has to deliver results, or end,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., lectured VA officials at congressional hearing on Thursday. “It cannot be allowed to stumble along and spend money forever.”
It was the second fractious hearing this week on the 10-year records overhaul project. VA leaders heard similar warnings Wednesday from House Appropriations Committee members who are frustrated that not a single site is using the new software successfully.
VA program planners halted all deployments last April of the reportedly bug-ridden Millennium records system, which is administered by Oracle Cerner. The project was announced by President Donald Trump in 2017, but only five VA medical sites have installed it, and all report numerous problems with tracking patients’ care history.
VA administrators told Congress at the Wednesday hearing that they hope to deploy the system to new sites sometime in summer 2024 and expressed optimism that the records overhaul project can get back on track.
Dr. Neil Evans, acting program director for VA’s records project, said they are working to simplify and streamline the system to better respond to staff and veteran needs.
Oracle Cerner Executive Vice President Mike Sicilia called the program difficulties thus far “unacceptable and frankly embarrassing” but also told lawmakers he is confident the past rollout errors can be corrected.
Witnesses at Thursday’s hearing were more skeptical.
“The majority of staff are still frustrated at the amount of time that things take to process or file,” said Scott Kelter, director of the VA Medical Center in Walla Walla, Washington, one of the few sites using the Millennium records system. “Right now, it’s still double or triple what it used to be.”
Most lawmakers on the appropriations committee voiced reluctant support for moving ahead with the Oracle Center software.
“We have spent too many billions of dollars for this to fail,” said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas.
But several Republicans on the veterans committee predicted the project’s demise.
“Five years out and we’re still having to bring people in to basically rebuild the system,” said Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C. “That’s not what a new electronic medical record is supposed to be. It’s absolutely inexcusable. There are other systems out there that are much better and could well translate to the needs of veterans and VA.”
In lieu of clear congressional consensus on whether the project should be abandoned, both Bost and committee ranking member Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said they are working with Senate counterparts to find ways for Congress to put new checks on the project before billions more in taxpayer funds are spent.
Takano said that a modern health records system is a necessity for VA, which is currently using the 45-year-old VistA system — the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture — at most sites. But he also said that given the past problems with deployment, “we need new legislative action to force some of the structural and accountability measures that are necessary to get this program on track.”
Bost said that will include assurances that the few sites using the software already “have been made whole” before additional medical centers are added. Lawmakers did not offer any timeline for when legislation may be voted on in the House or Senate.
VA officials are requesting almost $2 billion in funding for the ongoing electronic health records project in fiscal 2024, but Congress has yet to finalize that budget request.
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