Veterans Affairs officials on Friday announced a full halt to its troubled electronic health records modernization project, calling into question whether the $16-billion effort will be completely scrapped in the near future.
“For the past few years, we’ve tried to fix this plane while flying it, and that hasn’t delivered the results that veterans or our staff deserve,” Dr. Neil Evans, acting program executive director of VA’s health records project, said in a statement.
The move means that for the next few months — or possibly years — millions of patients and staff at VA medical centers will be left using the department’s aging records software, which does not easily share information with the Defense Department’s medical files system.
But such a move may prove a relief to some employees who have watched anxiously as the new Oracle Cerner system has caused frustration and confusion at the first five VA sites where it has been installed. The new reset also avoids the piecemeal delays in deployments that department leaders have announced multiple times over the last year.
VA officials said in a statement that they will not schedule any more system deployments “until VA is confident that the new [record system] is highly functioning at current sites and ready to deliver for veterans and VA clinicians.” Training that had been ongoing at future deployment sites will also be stopped
The five sites already using the Oracle Cerner software — the Spokane VA Health Care System, the VA Walla Walla Health Care System, the Roseburg VA Health Care System, the VA Southern Oregon Health Care, and the VA Central Ohio Health Care System — will continue to rely on the new records platform as top-level officials look for ways to improve it for the entire Veterans Health Administration.
“We are going to take the time necessary to get this right for veterans and VA clinicians alike,” said Evans, the records project’s acting program executive director. “And that means focusing our resources solely on improving the [health records] at the sites where it is currently in use, and improving its fit for VA more broadly.”
In a statement accompanying the announcement, Mike Sicilia — executive vice president of Oracle Global Industries — said his company “supports VA’s plan to improve the operation of the [records software] at the current sites and take the necessary time” for additional changes.
He noted the pause is similar to procedures followed by the Defense Department several years ago, as it installed its new health records software.
Defense officials are now nearing completion of their new health records system throughout military medical facilities. That system shares the same platform as the Oracle Cerner Millennium system being installed by VA. The goal behind the two efforts is to provide a lifelong, shared records system for troops’ and veterans’ health care needs.
But getting the two departments onto a shared system has proven elusive for decades. In 2014, leaders from the two departments received harsh criticism from lawmakers after a decade of work and more than $1 billion in spending failed to produce any meaningful path ahead for the separate systems.
In 2018, then President Donald Trump announced a new 10-year, $16-billion plan for VA to adopt the Millennium system. But problems at the five initial sites — including training gaps, system unreliability and concerns of patient harm — have delayed further rollout of the system.
Lawmakers in recent weeks have introduced a host of bills designed to further slow deployments until performance and accountability benchmarks are met. In a statement on Friday, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he supported the latest VA halt.
“This reset is a step in the right direction and shows that VA is serious about getting this program working for the veterans it serves,” he said. “The system is simply far too important to the future of our veterans’ health care.”
Committee ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, echoed that sentiment adding that “without these changes, it would be irresponsible to continue implementing the system at additional VA medical centers.”
Evans said there is no timeline for when further rollouts of the records software may resume.
“We’re not creating a false urgency of a schedule that says we’ve got to restart on some date,” he said. “We’re taking the time to get this right before we start again.”
But several House Republicans have questioned whether a restart should happen at all. Last month, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee members held a hearing to discuss whether upgrading and modernizing VistA — VA’s current, decades-old records system — was a cheaper and smarter alternative to the new Oracle Cerner partnership.
In a joint statement, committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., and Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont. (who leads the committee’s technology panel) said even with the latest pause, VA and Oracle Cerner officials “share the burden of demonstrating whether the [records] system and this project are capable of wholesale improvement.”
VA officials testified that such a plan was not realistic, given the outdated nature of the software’s base coding. But they also acknowledged that they will still rely on that system for the next few years, and longer if they cannot work out problems with the new software.
VA and Oracle Cerner are currently in the midst of contract negotiations for the next five years of records system work. Department leaders said they remain committed to finding solutions to the challenges with the private company, and are confident the latest halt will not complicate those contract talks.
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.