VA’s pharmacy IT system is flawed; officials say an EHR upgrade could be the solution

Veterans affairs sign
A new GAO report highlights interoperability concerns in VA's pharmacy system, including the inability to send prescriptions to outside providers.

Despite efforts to allow pharmacists at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to access medical records, the health system’s pharmacy IT platform is still plagued with inefficiencies, especially when communicating with private sector providers.

A federal watchdog agency has pinned most of the blame on VistA. Pharmacists aren’t always able to view patient records from the Department of Defense (DOD), making it difficult to check new prescriptions with current medications, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Although VA pharmacists can order medications electronically, the system doesn’t interact with providers and pharmacies outside the VA, forcing patients to obtain paper prescriptions. The GAO also pointed out that the system doesn’t have the ability to issue medication alerts and pharmacists are unable to monitor medication inventory levels.

REALATED: VA will move on from VistA, adopt Cerner EHR system to align with DOD

The deficiencies within the pharmacy’s system are part of broader interoperability concerns, that VA officials expect to resolve through a transition to a new off-the-shelf EHR system manufactured by Cerner, which mirrors the system that is rolling out across DOD facilities.

“Ensuring pharmacists have the ability to view the information necessary to safely and efficiently process medication orders is a priority for VA and will be addressed both in the overall modernization plan as well as the interim period before the modernization plan is fully implemented,” VA Deputy Chief of Staff Gina S. Farrisee wrote in a response to the GAO report.

During a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday, Shulkin defended his decision to switch to the Cerner platform, telling lawmakers, “I thought the risks were greater to do nothing.”

RELATED: Shulkin will use DOD tools, personnel to speed VA's transition to a new EHR system

But he acknowledged that interoperability with community providers will be a key feature of the VA’s new system. He noted that 80% of providers outside the VA are not on Cerner systems.

Meanwhile, the House Committee on Appropriations has already attached some strings to any EHR modernization funding, indicating it will withhold 75% of appropriations until the VA explains how the new system will resolve interoperability concerns.