VA officials discuss commercial EHR replacement, IT costs with lawmakers

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Officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs, testifying in front of a Senate committee Wednesday, indicated that the agency likely will turn to the private sector to replace its aging homegrown electronic health record system.

At the hearing of the Senate’s Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, VA CIO LaVerne Council said she cringes when she thinks about how old the current system is because, at the end of the day, it constitutes working with something to which few people can relate.

“I have a lot of respect for the VistA product, but [it] is a 40-year-old product,” said Council, who called 40 to 50 years “ancient” in the world of IT.

VA Under Secretary for Health David Shulkin added that looking at a commercial product is likely the way to go, but it must be done in a way that incorporates the agency’s “ability to integrate with community providers and all of the unique needs of veterans.”

Both Council and Shulkin tried to assuage concerns raised by lawmakers that its projects would be a financial black hole, with the latter telling Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal that he shared his impatience. But Blumenthal said technology issues, such as interoperability between the EHR systems of the VA and the Department of Defense, have been hurdles for as long as he’s served in the senate, six years. In February 2013, both agencies nixed a plan to create a joint EHR.

“Every time we’ve raised the issue [of interoperability], we’ve been assured that it’s been solved,” Blumenthal said. “Then we come back and ask the same question. The decades of unsuccessful attempts to establish an electronic health record system compatible across the VA and the Department of Defense have caused hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted in efforts that have been abandoned.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) called for more accountability, saying that it blows his mind how much money is going out the door only for issues to continue.

Council said the VA continues to work very closely with both the DoD and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT to ensure all EHR efforts are in sync with one another.

However, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), echoing the sentiments of her skeptical colleagues, said she’s tired of hearing about how well the VA and the DoD are working together.

“I wish you the best, but we really do need results,” she told Council.

To learn more:
- watch the full hearing