The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will make its decision about whether it will sign a contract with Cerner to replace its VistA EHR on May 28, Jon Rychalski, VA assistant secretary for management and chief financial officer told the Senate Committee on Appropriations on Wednesday.
It’s been almost a year since former VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD made the announcement that the VA would replace its legacy EHR with Cerner, to align its system with the Department of Defense. The deal has been delayed for both interoperability concerns, and then due to Shulkin’s firing in March.
Currently, DoD official Robert Wilkie has been the agency’s acting secretary in the interim. Rychalski told the committee that Wilkie “came in cold” to the position.
And while “he knew what was going on with DoD,” Rychalski said Wilkie didn’t know “enough about the VA and felt he needed to do due diligence to make sure that he was comfortable in making a decision of this magnitude.”
The result was further delay in contract negotiations between the two parties. Rychalski explained that the initial interoperability concerns were evaluated by MITRE in January, which “was probably worthwhile because they came up with about 50 recommendations” that will be added to the contract.
Cerner took a financial hit due to the delays, but officials still expect the contract to go through within the year. The VA asked for $782 million to jumpstart the EHR project for Fiscal Year 2018 and requested $1.2 billion for Fiscal Year 2019.
Estimated totals for the project range from $10 billion to $16 billion over the course of 10 years. Buried in the request was language that outlined the new EHR will be identical to the DoD’s system, which is currently in an assessment stage.
But some senators aren’t convinced the delays were due to Wilkie’s lack of knowledge about the project, but rather a “leadership vacuum,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.
Schatz also took issue with the fact that the agency hasn’t spent the original request of $782 million — but then requested another $1.2 billion for the project.
“It makes little sense to give the VA more money for the EHR system so that it can sit in an account, while this all gets sorted out,” Schatz said. “No amount of money from Congress can fix the leadership issues at VA.”
Schatz noted the agency’s acting CIO Scott Blackburn resigned last month, but his departure was just the latest in the ongoing turmoil at the agency. In fact, Wilkie’s position as acting secretary is being called “unlawful” by two veterans’ groups, which have sued to stop any decision Wilkie makes in the role.
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