House lawmakers warned that they may kill off the Department of Veterans Affairs costly and complicated electronic health records modernization effort unless officials can show significant progress in coming months.
Administrators “have to fundamentally improve,” said Rep. Mike Bost, R-Illinois, ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, during a hearing on the topic Wednesday. “If we don’t see major progress by early next year, when VA says they intend to roll [the effort] out to larger sites, we will have to seriously consider pulling the plug.”
“I hope the situation can somehow be turned around. But everyone involved in this needs to understand that the consequences are real, and that there are no blank checks.”
The criticism from House members came amid the second tense hearing for VA health records officials in the past week.
On July 20, members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee grilled department leaders over new delays in the 10-year modernization effort and reports that the $16 billion price tag could more than triple in coming years.
Just a few days earlier, the VA Inspector General’s office released a new report detailing 149 cases of patient harm caused by the implementation of the new Oracle Cerner Millennium records software over a nine-month period at the department’s hospital in Spokane, Washington.
A flaw in the system sent about 11,000 orders to an unknown and unchecked file, where requests for items such as appointments or blood tests went unanswered. In at least two cases, the lost files caused “major harm” to patients.
The health records overhaul was announced by then-President Donald Trump in 2017 as a way to bring veterans health records onto the same system as the military, providing troops with a lifelong medical file.
But the effort has been beset by problems for the past few years. The new software has been deployed to sites in Ohio and Washington, but additional planned rollouts for 2022 have been delayed until 2023 amid the mounting concerns.
In testimony Wednesday, Dr. Terry Adirim, director of the Electronic Health Record Modernization Integration Office, pushed back on the cost overrun estimates, saying they are based on the assumption putting the system in place will take more than 10 years.
“We are still in the process of planning for a 10-year deployment and we should have a schedule out sometime in the fall,” she said. “However, there have been delays, and so it’s reasonable to expect that it could go beyond that, and we are doing that kind of contingency planning.”
Lawmakers called the situation troubling.
Bost said he intends to draft legislation protecting patients and taxpayers from the program spiraling out of control.
If Republicans win control of the House in the November election, he likely will take over as chairman of the committee and would wield considerable legislative power on the issue.
Current committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-California, said he still believes that the department must upgrade its records system but “I will not sit idly by and allow this program to endanger veterans.”
Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Montana, called the system “fully dysfunctional” and said he believes it is “not safe or suitable to roll out anywhere else.”
Other panel members said they will work with VA officials to “hold program officials accountable,” which could mean reprimands and dismissals in coming months.
VA officials have promised overhauls to the training programs to better prepare staff for future deployments. Leaders at Oracle Cerner have said publicly they are committed to fixing past problems with the system.
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.