Resignation of VA’s acting CIO casts doubt on EHR efforts

Just weeks after the ouster of Secretary David Shulkin, Scott Blackburn has resigned as head of the agency’s Office of Information & Technology.

The Department of Veterans Affairs continues to lose key leadership as negotiations with Cerner for a $10 billion electronic health record modernization contract remain up in the air.

Acting chief information officer Scott Blackburn resigned this week from his duties at the VA, making the announcement on his personal Twitter account. Blackburn, who also served as acting assistant secretary of information and technology, gave no reason for his resignation, stating that his plan was to take “time off for a few months” and that he would “remain both VA’s biggest cheerleader and critic from afar.”

Blackburn’s departure comes on the heels of the ouster of David Shulkin, MD, as secretary of the VA. President Trump announced Shulkin’s firing on Twitter and his decision to tap his physician Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson to lead the agency.

Also See: Shulkin departure leaves VA contract with Cerner up in the air

“Scott Blackburn has resigned as executive in charge of VA’s Office of Information & Technology,” said Curt Cashour, VA press secretary, in a written statement. “We thank Scott for his service and wish him the best of luck in the future. Camilo Sandoval is the executive in charge of VA’s Office of Information & Technology.”

Sandoval has served as senior advisor to VA’s under secretary for health, a job in which he oversaw a range of improvement efforts including EHR modernization and telehealth, according to Cashour.

“A candidate for VA’s permanent assistant secretary for information and technology has been identified and is being vetted by the White House,” added Cashour.

The Cerner EHR that the VA had planned to implement over 10 years is estimated to cost a total of $15.8 billion, according to the latest agency data provided to Congress, with $10 billion designated to go to the vendor. Negotiations between the agency and Cerner to finalize the contract have been going on for nearly a year because of a series of delays. The VA has yet to announce the completion of the deal.

Asked about the status of the contract with Cerner in light of Shulkin and Blackburn both leaving the agency, Cashour responded that “VA doesn’t typically comment on ongoing contract negotiations.”

Nonetheless, some observers are concerned that two of the hands-on architects behind replacing the agency’s legacy EHR with Cerner’s Millennium platform—Shulkin and Blackburn—are now gone and that the future of the project may be in doubt.

“There are a lot of challenges at the VA right now,” says Micky Tripathi, president and CEO of the Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative, regarding news of Blackburn’s resignation. “I worry about that and the continuing delays in the Cerner contract.”

Tripathi contends that losing Shulkin and Blackburn could potentially leave an opening for supporters of the VA’s Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA)—which is very popular with many of the agency’s clinicians—to try to block the decision to replace the legacy system with a Cerner EHR.

“It’s not a secret that there’s a large constituency within the VA who thought that they shouldn’t move from VistA,” adds Tripathi. “I’m not suggesting that they have bad motives, because I think that they come from a place where they truly believe that VistA is the right solution and that Cerner will not be the best solution.”

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