- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Department of Veterans Affairs is under pressure from Congress to deliver on its new $16 billion electronic health-records system that’s already incurring huge cost overruns and won’t be fully operational for a decade.

After a testy hearing on delays in the program, two Republicans on the House Veterans Affairs Committee acknowledged Thursday that the VA’s 10-year goal for implementing the high-tech system is “lengthy.” But they said it would be worse for the agency to “rush the project along.”

Reps. Phil Roe of Tennessee and Jim Banks of Indiana said that until the system is successfully installed in the first few VA medical centers as a pilot, “it needs to be done right, not fast. Slow and steady wins the race.”

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Critics in both parties say the VA already has mastered the “slow” part.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Florida Democrat, told VA officials at a hearing Wednesday that the new system’s projected $16 billion cost, up from the initial contract of $10 billion signed with Cerner Corp. last May, makes it more expensive than the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the $13 billion U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford.

The 10-year deployment schedule “seems like an insane amount of time for this to take,” she said.

VA figures show the overall 10-year cost estimate rose from about $15.8 billion in November 2017 to more than $16.1 billion in February 2018. In addition to the original Cerner contract of just under $10 billion, the program included infrastructure costs of $4.3 billion and other support contracts of $1.79 billion, as of February 2018.

Ms. Wasserman-Schultz said four administrations dating back to President Bill Clinton in 1998 have discussed and planned for a health-records system that is compatible between the VA and the Defense Department. But the current VA system called Vista is still DOS-based, a technology introduced in 1981.

“That’s the kind of ancient system we’re dealing with here,” she said.

Rep. Will Hurd, Texas Republican, said it’s “outrageous” that veterans and service members “still don’t have an interoperable health-care record.”

“There’s only one question that matters — when will our men and women in uniform be able to walk across the street, the day that they are discharged from service, to the VA medical facility and have their record waiting for them?” Mr. Hurd asked VA officials.

VA representatives said the Electronic Health Record Modernization program will be ready as a pilot in March 2020 at three VA sites in the Pacific Northwest.

“It is in fact a complex, difficult and time-consuming job,” VA general counsel James Byrne said. “We need to constantly remind ourselves that when we complete this difficult, complex transformation, there will be tangible, measurable benefits for veterans.”

A major hurdle involves mapping all 131 Visa domains and transferring the data into a format that Cerner can view. John Windom, executive director of VA’s Office of Electronic Health Record Modernization, said 22 of the data domains have been mapped so far, including 5 billion records, but he couldn’t say how long the process is taking.

Under the contract, the VA will use the same system as the Department of Defense, enabling both departments to share veterans’ medical records and coordinate care.

Some lawmakers expressed concern that the new system will still require upgrades to make veterans’ health-care records accessible to private providers.

Apple announced this week that veterans will soon be able to access their health records on their iPhones. The tech giant said it’s working with the VA to enable veterans to view their records in the Health app on their Apple smartphone.

“When patients have better access to their health information, they have more productive conversations with their physicians,” Apple COO Jeff Williams said in a statement. “By bringing Health Records on iPhone to VA patients, we hope veterans will experience improved healthcare that will enhance their lives.”

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