VA chief will seek IT funding supplemental

Once the Department of Veterans Affairs makes a decision on the future of its electronic health records system, it will seek money from Congress to put the plan into place.

David Shulkin briefs reporters at the White House

VA Secretary David Shulkin briefs reporters at the White House.

Once the Department of Veterans Affairs makes a decision on the future of its electronic health records system, it will seek money from Congress to put the plan into place, agency head David Shulkin said at a May 31 White House press conference.

Shulkin, who has promised many times in Capitol Hill appearances to get VA out of the software development business, is expected to announce a new direction for the department's electronic health record system before a July 1 deadline.

At the White House event, which marked Shulkin's 100th day as secretary, the agency head indicated that VA would either outsource the continued development of its homegrown Vista electronic health record system to a vendor or go with an off-the-shelf commercial solution.

In either case, the upgrade "will require an initial capital investment that's not in our FY18 budget," Shulkin said, indicating that he plans to seek additional funding from Congress.

The shortfall explains the cut in the Trump administration budget to the Office of Information and Technology at VA, one of the few cuts in a request that seeks an overall uptick in funding of more than $6 billion.

IT issues figured prominently in a "State of the VA" factsheet Shulkin presented at his briefing.

Shulkin said VA was planning to move as many functions as possible to commercial, cloud-based solutions, and was taking steps to modernize inventory systems that help doctors and nurses know what supplies they have at their disposal for caregiving.

Shulkin also warned that a system used to track housing and other loans made by VA was so obsolete that the agency would have to revert to a paper-based system if they couldn't obtain a replacement. Shulkin said such a move would reduce the number of veterans serviced by the loan program from 90,000 a year to 12,000, potentially putting vets "at risk of foreclosure and homelessness."

VA tech also is lagging the private sector when it comes to electronically submitted claims from private sector providers. Shulkin said that as of April 2017, only 65 percent of claims under the VA's community care program were submitted electronically.

On the workforce front, Shulkin announced a continuation of the hiring freeze at VA headquarters while he looks to consolidate some program offices and move some common functions to shared services. Those moves are part of a plan to cut the agency's overhead by 10 percent.

Shulkin also renewed his call for the Senate to pass accountability legislation to speed up the imposition of disciplinary action and termination for misconduct. Currently, he said, there are 1,500 VA employees in a queue to be demoted or suspended for violating core values, but it takes more than a month to impose such penalties.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced plans to bring the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act to the floor on June 6. The bill passed in committee on May 24, and the House passed a similar bill in March. Shulkin said the need for new accountability legislation was urgent, in the wake of a recent federal appeals court ruling that eliminated a fast track for firing at VA on constitutional grounds.