Robert Wilkie, the acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, will make an acquisition decision by May 28—Memorial Day—regarding the VA’s plans to purchase a commercial-off-the-shelf electronic health record from Cerner to replace its legacy system, according to a senior agency official.

Jon Rychalski, assistant secretary for management and chief financial officer at the VA, updated lawmakers on the latest timeline for the procurement during Wednesday’s Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Fiscal Year 2019 budget request. The agency has been trying for nearly a year to negotiate a contract with Cerner—the deal has yet to be signed by the two parties.

Also See: Cerner assesses financial hit from delay of VA EHR contract

President Trump named Wilkie the agency’s acting secretary in late March, following the ouster of then-VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD.

When Wilkie took over as interim head of the VA, “he sort of came in cold,” explained Rychalski to the Senate subcommittee. “He knew what was going on with DoD but not enough about the VA, and felt he needed to do due diligence to make sure that he was comfortable in making a decision of this magnitude.”

As a result, Rychalski said that the VA’s contract negotiations with Cerner have been delayed. He told lawmakers that this represented the “second delay” in the agency making the award to the EHR vendor. The first delay occurred in December, when Shulkin ordered a “strategic pause” in the agency’s negotiations with Cerner—as part of the acquisition process—to have MITRE Corp. conduct an external assessment of the VA’s interoperability requirements.

MITRE’s interoperability assessment “was probably worthwhile because they came up with about 50 recommendations,” which the agency is incorporating into its contract with Cerner, added Rychalski.

Late last year, the VA submitted a formal request to congressional appropriators to reprogram $782 million of Fiscal Year 2018 funding to kick start its planned procurement of the Cerner EHR. The VA’s FY2019 budget request includes $1.2 billion for EHR modernization. According to the latest data provided to Congress, it will cost the agency a total of $15.8 billion over 10 years to implement the system, including $10 billion for the Cerner contract that has yet to be signed.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee, expressed his concerns that “the process has stalled in part because of the leadership vacuum at VA, contracting delays and finally the need to align the VA and DoD rollout—given it’s going to be the same system.”

Schatz complained that while the agency “hasn’t spent the hundreds of millions of dollars that have already been appropriated for this new system,” the VA has gone ahead and requested $1.2 billion in its FY2019 budget request for the effort.

“It makes little sense to give the VA more money for the EHR system so that it can sit in an account while this all gets sorted out,” he concluded, referring to the fact that the agency requested a single separate account for the effort, which Congress established in the FY2018 Appropriations Act.

Schatz added that “no amount of money from Congress can fix the leadership issues at VA,” noting that the VA’s acting chief information officer, Scott Blackburn, who was overseeing the EHR modernization, resigned from the agency last month.

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