If confirmed by the U.S. Senate as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie will make the implementation of a new $15.8 billion electronic health record system one of the VA’s top priorities.

Wilkie told the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which conducted a hearing on Wednesday to consider his nomination, that access to healthcare through the implementation of “transformative” information technology modernization—such as the acquisition of a commercial off-the-shelf Cerner EHR—is vital to making the agency a world-class health services organization.

Last month, as VA acting secretary, Wilkie awarded Cerner a $10 billion EHR modernization contract to replace the agency’s decades-old Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture. The agency expects the system implementation for the initial operating capability sites to begin October 1, with an estimated completion date of March 2020. Cerner’s EHR will be rolled out enterprisewide as part of a 10-year contract.

“The new electronic health record system is the first step to modernize VA—it modernizes our appointment system, it is also the template to get us started on the road to automate disability claims and our payment claims, particularly to our providers in rural America and those who administer emergency care,” testified Wilkie.

More importantly, he said the Cerner system will achieve interoperability by connecting “VA to the DoD, private doctors and private pharmacies to create a continuum of care and organize healthcare around the veteran’s needs.”

The VA intends to create a single common EHR system with the Department of Defense by leveraging a shared Cerner Millennium platform, and the agency’s planned acquisition calls for aligning the deployment and implementation of the system with DoD’s ongoing rollout of its own system—called MHS GENESIS—in order to achieve efficiencies.

However, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) expressed her concern that DoD’s director of operational test and evaluation released a report last month that found the military’s Cerner EHR system—installed at four initial sites in the Pacific Northwest—is neither operationally effective nor operationally suitable.

Also See: DoD rollout of Cerner EHR deemed not operationally effective or suitable

“You signed the contract to move forward on procuring the same (Cerner) system” as the military, Murray told Wilkie. “We cannot see the same problems that DoD has experienced. So, I want to know what you will do to oversee the rollout and what specific steps you’re going to take to make sure quality and access to care is not diminished.”

Wilkie responded that he “will not commit to putting any program online until it is properly tested.”

Nonetheless, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) voiced his concern that key executive positions at VA remain unfilled, including deputy secretary, under secretary for health and chief information officer. “We have a ton of leadership vacancies that’s going to impact” the EHR implementation, said Tester.

“I pledge to the committee that I will move as rapidly as I can—if confirmed—to get those people in place,” Wilkie pledged.

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