Sen. Tester puts new VA CIO on notice over Cerner EHR contract

Jon Tester, D-Mont., is the ranking member of the Senate's VA committee. (USDA/Preston Keres)

As the Department of Veterans Affairs' new CIO settles in, the ranking member of the Senate VA committee is making it clear he will face considerable congressional oversight.

In a letter to newly sworn-in Assistant Secretary James Gfrerer, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., pointed to the VA's many IT challenges as evidence that the department needs new leadership in the area. He also suggested that the Trump administration hasn't been taking those challenges seriously enough.

"There is no doubt that insufficient resources, a chronic lack of transparency, and an inability to effectively prioritize countless competing objectives have led to serious questions about the VA's ability to meet the standard of technology necessary to serve our nation's veterans," Tester wrote in the letter (PDF). "Inexplicably, in the face of additional IT requirements, as well as the Department's fumbling of IT solutions, the budget for Information Technology submitted by the President for Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019 reflected drastic cuts."

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In particular, the VA has faced regular hiccups in its development of an electronic health record (EHR) system. The agency signed a deal last May to switch from its customized VistA platform to a contract run by Cerner, but that will take some time for an organization of the VA's size.

Tester noted that this will be a key challenge for Gfrerer and the VA's newly created Office of Information and Technology (OI&T) as the year moves forward.

"Your role is critical to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. As you know, OI&T will maintain responsibility for managing infrastructure needs for both the facilities that have received the new EHR as well as those that have not. This task will require significant resources and robust oversight as VA manages a decade-long rollout," Tester wrote.

RELATED: VA signs $10B deal with Cerner, but implementation challenges still loom large

CIOs face a frequently thankless job, but in a world of cyberthreats and increased reliance on IT systems, Congress has been looking into ways to strengthen the role. The House passed a bill earlier this month that would move the government's federal CIO to a direct report under the Office of Management and Budget director.

While the bill wouldn't directly affect the VA's CIO position, an increased push on cyber resiliency in government could have a spillover effect on various federal agencies. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, one of the bill's sponsors, noted that the federal government has fallen far behind in this area.

“Americans should be able to trust their government to keep their information safe,” said Hurd in a statement. “This bill helps keep the vast information stored by the federal government secure from hackers by making clear that the federal CIO is in charge of the security of our data across the government. I am proud to introduce this bill with my friend Rep. Robin Kelly so we can continue to work toward finally catching our federal government up with the 21st century.”

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