VA says finalizing decision on EHR modernization is priority

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Despite its leadership vacancies, the Department of Veterans Affairs insists that finalizing a decision on the agency’s electronic health record modernization is a near-term priority.

While acting CIO Scott Blackburn resigned last week and VA Secretary David Shulkin was fired by President Trump in late March, agency officials contend that the VA’s new leadership is “now firmly aligned” with the president’s short-term priorities including EHR modernization.

“In a number of cases, employees who were wedded to the status quo and not on board with this administration’s policies or pace of change have now departed VA,” said Curt Cashour, VA press secretary, in a written statement. “Under Acting Secretary Wilkie’s leadership, senior VA officials are now on the same page, speaking with one voice to veterans, employees and outside stakeholders, such as Congress and veterans service organizations, and are focused on a number of key priorities in the short term.”

However, Cashour did not indicate whether the VA’s decision on EHR modernization would be to follow through on Shulkin’s decision in June 2017 to replace its legacy Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) with a commercial-off-the-shelf Cerner system—or to stick with the decades-old VistA and update it.

The VA has been in ongoing negotiations with Cerner for a $10 billion EHR modernization contract, which has yet to be signed. Trump’s firing of Shulkin has effectively left the technology deal in limbo.

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

Shulkin had committed the VA to creating a single common EHR system with the Department of Defense using a shared Cerner Millennium EHR platform. In fact, the agency announced plans to align its deployment and implementation with the rollout of DoD’s own Cerner system, which has so far been installed at four military sites in the Pacific Northwest.

While some observers are questioning the VA’s commitment to acquiring a Cerner system, one DoD official is confident that the agency is on track to eventually sign a deal with the EHR vendor. Testifying on Thursday before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Stacy Cummings, program executive officer for Defense Healthcare Management Systems, told the panel that her agency has “regular engagement” with the VA to coordinate its activities in anticipation of the Cerner acquisition.

“We meet regularly, we share lessons learned, we talk about the technology implications,” testified Cummings, who added that the DoD-VA meetings have continued despite the recent departures of Shulkin and Blackburn. She added that from her perspective the VA’s “still moving the ball forward.”

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee released the Fiscal Year 2019 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill, which includes $1.2 billion for the new VA EHR system—though Cerner was never mentioned by name.

“This will ensure the implementation of the contract creating an electronic record system for VA that is identical to one being developed for DoD,” according to committee. “These two identical systems will ensure our veterans get proper care, with timely and accurate medical data transferred between the VA, DoD, and the private sector.”

In related news, Wednesday’s announcement by Cashour indicated that the VA was also working closely with the White House to get nominee Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the agency’s next secretary. However, on Thursday, Jackson withdrew his nomination after a Senate committee indefinitely postponed his confirmation hearing this week to investigate allegations of improper behavior and management lapses.

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