Lawmakers Want Review of VA’s VistA Modernization Efforts

VA CIO LaVerne Council

VA CIO LaVerne Council Veterans Affairs Department

Earlier this year, the VA CIO said the agency needed to "take a step back" from a planned upgrade of its long-running electronic health records system.

The top tech official at the Veteran Affairs Department raised eyebrows earlier this year when she said the agency needed to "take a step back" from a planned upgrade of its long-running electronic health records system, known as VistA.  

At the time, VA was putting together a business case for various options for the future of “VistA Evolution” and CIO LaVerne Council told lawmakers "we have not made up our minds” about what direction to take with the upgrade.  

Now, the two top members of a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that handles federal IT management issues want a government watchdog to step in and review VA’s plans.

“Given the significance of VA’s electronic health record information system to the performance of its health care mission, and in light of VA’s repeated attempts to modernize VistA, the subcommittee is requesting information on the efforts to modernize VistA,” wrote Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, chairman of the IT Operations subcommittee, and Robin Kelly, D-Ill., the ranking member, in a May 27 letter to the head of the Government Accountability Office.

The lawmakers want GAO to conduct a study of the VistA modernization effort, including a history of past attempts to modernize the home-grown EHR system, which dates back to the 1980s and consists of more than 100 different computer applications. The letter requests a cost breakdown of those previous efforts, “the key contractors that have been involved” and VA’s current plans and estimated costs for modernizing the system.

VA doctors and nurses still rate the home-grown IT system highly, though critics contend it is inefficient and outdated. An independent report last fall by the MITRE Corps said VA’s in-house system was “in danger of becoming obsolete.”

There have been numerous attempts over the years to upgrade the system, including an ill-fated effort between VA and DOD begun in 2011 to develop a fully integrated EHR system to be shared by both.

In February 2013, faced with ballooning cost estimates, officials backed away from plans for a fully integrated joint system. Instead, the departments decided to continue upgrading their respective systems to make them more interoperable.

Later that year, VA unveiled a new plan to upgrade its legacy system -- a modernization effort known as VistA Evolution. But the agency requested less funding for development of the system in its most recent budget request, calling into question the system’s long-term future.  

“Everyone says it's like tapping the brakes,” Council said in a Q&A with FCW last month. “That's not how we see it.”

The last phase of the VistA Evolution effort runs through 2018, Council said -- and that’s still the plan. But she said VA needs to come up with “the next digital health platform,” for the long-term future.