- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2017

The Trump administration announced Monday that it is taking a multibillion-dollar step to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs’ electronic medical records system to make it compatible with the Defense Department’s records.

“This is one of the biggest wins for our veterans in decades,” President Trump said at the White House.

VA Secretary David J. Shulkin announced the move that’s intended to streamline the agency’s health care for veterans by coordinating their records with the Pentagon.

“I have decided that VA will adopt the same [electronic health records] system as DoD,” Mr. Shulkin said. “It’s time to move forward.”

Mr. Trump said the use of two separate systems “has caused massive problems for our veterans.”

“We are finally taking steps to solve the situation once and for all,” the president said.

Mr. Shulkin is issuing a waiver on open bidding requirements due to “the urgency and the critical nature of this decision.” The move means that the VA can issue a solicitation directly to Cerner Corporation for acquisition of the EHR system currently used by the Defense Department.

Veterans likely won’t see changes for several years, with the software contract to be forged over the next six months, and the system’s custom design and implementation to take much longer. Mr. Shulkin couldn’t estimate the eventual cost but noted that the VA system will be bigger and more complex than the Pentagon’s, which cost about $4.3 billion.

The money isn’t in the VA’s current budget, and Mr. Shulkin said he’s already begun talking to House and Senate appropriators about additional funding.

House Appropriations Chairman Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, New Jersey Republican, said he has been pushing for the upgrade for years.

“To avoid interruptions in care or expensive redundancy, the Appropriations Committee has demanded that the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense use an identical or at least compatible or interoperable network,” Mr. Frelinghuysen said. “Today, with his decision, Secretary Shulkin confirmed that the time for action has arrived.”

Rep. Charles W. Dent, Pennsylvania Republican and chair of the Appropriations subcommittee on Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, said an integrated medical records system is a “bipartisan goal” in Congress.

“My focus is to provide the best care possible for veterans, supported by a modern electronic health record system that best serves their needs as they transition from active to veteran status and protects their personal information in a cost-effective manner,” Mr. Dent said.

The VA has been long criticized for records and scheduling systems that cause backlogs and long wait times for treatment.

In the 1970s the agency pioneered the electronic system known as VistA, which manages health care information for millions of veterans at VA centers and clinics across the country.

But critics say that VA officials have failed to upgrade the system, leading to consideration of a commercial provider.

Mr. Shulkin said VistA “is in need of major modernization to keep pace with the improvements in health information technology and cybersecurity.

“Software development is not a core competency of VA,” he said. “I said recently to Congress that I was committed to getting VA out of the software business, that I didn’t see remaining in that business as benefitting veterans. And, because of that, we’re making a decision to move towards a commercial off-the-shelf product.”

Concerned Veterans for America Policy Director Dan Caldwell said the decision was long overdue for the Veterans Health Administration.

“The VA’s electronic health record system is obsolete and is a barrier to making the VHA a better-functioning health care system,” Mr. Caldwell said. “We commend Secretary Shulkin for following through on his promise to modernize information technology at the VA, and we hope this new system is properly implemented.”

Mr. Shulkin said the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to make the Defense Department’s and VA’s health records systems more compatible, but he said many challenges remain.

“Seamless care is fundamentally constrained by ever-changing information-sharing standards, separate chains of command, complex governance, separate implementation schedules” and other complexities, he said. “The bottom line is we still don’t have the ability to trade information seamlessly for our veteran patients and seamlessly execute a shared plan of care with smooth handoffs.”

He added, “Without improved and consistently implemented national interoperability standards, VA and DoD will continue to face significant challenges if the departments remain on two different systems.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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