Lawmakers to VA: “We’ve Got Your Back” on $10B IT Contract

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Congress expressed its support for VA's electronic health records contract with Cerner, but promised to keep a close watch on its implementation.

Officials from the Veterans Affairs Department on Thursday defended their decision to scrap previous plans and begin a fourth, and hopefully final, attempt to modernize the agency’s electronic health records system.

In June, VA Secretary David Shulkin announced his plan to award Cerner Corp. a single-source contract to put the agency on the same electronic health records platform as the Defense Department. At a price-tag of about $10 billion, it would be one of the biggest health IT implementations in history, said VA Chief Information Officer Scott Blackburn.

Blackburn highlighted the differences between the Cerner plan and previous failed attempts at achieving interoperability between VA and DoD medical records before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee. Unlike previous attempts to modernize a motley crue of decades-old IT systems, the new plan would put every VA facility on a single, uniform platform over the next 10 years.

The Government Accountability Office found that VA awarded more than $1.1 billion to 138 contractors from fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2016 in a failed attempt to upgrade its existing Veterans Information Systems and Technology Architecture system. The agency decided to scrap the effort after officials realized the revamp would be “incredibly costly,” according to Blackburn. One independent group estimated the total project would top $19 billion, he said.

Blackburn said VA opted to start fresh with Cerner in part because the company is already developing the DOD’s MHS Genesis platform. Putting both agencies on the same system would allow veterans to transfer medical records between agencies “seamlessly”, he said, putting to rest the costly issue of disparate medical systems that has plagued both organizations for years.

Lawmakers who initially balked at the massive price-tag took turns pressing Blackburn on the steps being taken to mitigate costs.

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, focused specifically on how much of the platform Cerner would customize for VA. One-off alterations could create barriers to interoperability, he said, and drive up costs in the long run.

Unlike previous modernization attempts, Blackburn said, the agency would rely heavily on “off the shelf” solutions and minimize the customization for the new platform. The VA’s 168 nationwide facilities all currently run a unique version of VistA, he said, but what the Cerner platform “will force us to do is standardize [procedures] across our medical system and also [put them] in line with the workflows of DOD.”

Congressmen commended officials the for the “life changing” impact an integrated platform could have on veterans’ lives, but also warned that strict oversight and realistic goals were needed to avoid the failures of the past.

“We are committed on a bipartisan basis to make this happen,” said committee Chairman Will Hurd, R-Texas. “We’ve got your back, but we’re also more than willing to create pressure and stress where it’s needed to improve performance.”