House Passes Bill to Keep Tabs on VA’s Health Records Modernization

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Lawmakers plan to keep a close eye on the implementation of the $10 billion project.

In the run-up to Memorial Day, the House on Tuesday passed a slew of veteran-focused legislation, including a bill that would keep Congress in the loop on a massive effort to modernize electronic medical records at the Veterans Affairs Department.

The Veterans’ Electronic Health Record Modernization Oversight Act would require the agency to send Congress regular updates on the $10 billion modernization project it launched last week with Cerner Corp. The 10-year contract would transition the department’s 9 million patients from a collage of outdated medical records systems to the same platform as the Pentagon.

The bill, which lawmakers approved by voice vote, would mandate the agency hand over its plans for building and integrating the new system, and provide Congress with quarterly updates on project timelines, costs, performance and risk management strategy.

Under the measure, agency officials would also have to notify lawmakers about any contract or schedule changes within five days and report any milestone delays, bid protests, data losses or privacy breaches within 10 days. The bill’s Senate counterpart still awaits committee approval.

“If successful, VA’s Cerner project will be a transformation of how VA delivers and manages the health care of 9 million veterans. Still, the path to achieving a seamless, interoperable health record is far from clear,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Md., told Nextgov. “Oversight will be a key part of this transition as the process moves forward, which is why I’m proud to support this important bill.”

Upon signing the deal, acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie called the switch to the MHS Genesis platform “an enormous win for our nation’s veterans,” and underscored the need for “seamless” data sharing between his agency and the Defense Department.

But the system’s rollout at the Pentagon recently hit some stumbling blocks.

The department temporarily halted the rollout in February to address more than 14,000 help-desk tickets, and officials recently declared the system “neither operationally effective nor operationally suitable” after tests at three of its four pilot facilities. Field trials went so poorly the agency scrapped testing at the fourth site.

Former VA chief information officer Roger Baker told Nextgov the agency should prepare to face many of the same problems that have come up at the Pentagon.

“It’s no surprise that a program as big as MHS going to have problems like this—according to all the metrics, most large federal IT programs aren’t successful,” said Baker, who held the department’s top tech job from 2009 to 2013. “[VA] need[s] to remember that the probability they’re flushing [those funds] down the toilet is actually greater than 50 percent.”

While he sees oversight bill as a step in the right direction, former agency acting CIO Scott Blackburn told Nextgov lawmakers will “need to make sure the reporting requirements aren’t overly bureaucratic…but rather focused on metrics and information that really matter.”

To make sure VA avoids missteps that plagued previous EHR projects, lawmakers’ efforts should focus on transparency, accountability and continuity throughout changing leadership, said Blackburn, who stepped down in April. He also recommended VA seek out frequent input from veterans and create a formal Federal Advisory Board of EHR experts to weigh in on the project.

Beyond the oversight legislation, House lawmakers passed another 13 other bills aimed at improving the lives of veterans, including measures that would provide cost-of-living adjustments to benefits for disabled vets, pilot a counseling program for victims of military sexual trauma and increase data sharing between VA and state-based organizations to curb opioid abuse.

Editor's note: This article was updated with comments from Scott Blackburn.