Overhaul of VA's Troubled Health Records Program Eyed by Senators

Senator Jon Tester during a visit to Malmstrom Air Force Base.
Senator Jon Tester speaks with Col. Jennifer Reeves, 341st Missile Wing commander, during his visit Feb. 19, 2019, at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tristan Truesdell)

The chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and other prominent senators are planning "comprehensive legislation" to overhaul the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs electronic health records program, the lawmakers announced this week.

The proposal is the latest effort from lawmakers to pump the brakes on a program that has seen numerous glitches that watchdog reports have found endangered patient safety.

The VA has paused rolling out its Millennium Electronic Health Records system to more sites while the company that built the program, Oracle Cerner, works to solve ongoing problems at the locations where it has already been deployed.

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"It's clear that the new EHR system is failing veterans, medical personnel and taxpayers, and we need aggressive measures to right this ship and get a better return on investment through this contract," committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a statement Wednesday. "That's why my colleagues and I are putting forth comprehensive legislation to increase transparency and oversight over the new electronic health record system -- holding VA and Oracle Cerner accountable on behalf of the men and women who risked their lives to defend our country."

The $16 billion program, the contract for which was awarded in 2018, was first introduced at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington, in November 2020 and has since been rolled out to other sites in Washington, Ohio and Oregon. It was originally scheduled to launch in more facilities this past summer, but the VA announced a pause as problems -- and bipartisan criticism -- mounted.

Among the issues have been system outages, difficulties among VA staffers in using the program, and harm to patients when records got lost or misclassified in the system.

Officials from Oracle testified before Congress earlier this month that improvements have been made, including average monthly downtime dropping from 345 minutes each month last year to 21 minutes this year.

Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who both sit on the Veterans Affairs Committee, are also spearheading the overhaul measure, which a news release said the group will formally introduce in the "coming days."

At a House hearing Wednesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough told lawmakers that the department is reviewing its contract with Oracle and that the future of the system will largely depend on the results of the review.

House Republicans have introduced a pair of bills that aim to improve the program or abandon it altogether.

The latest proposal from Senate Democrats would prevent the VA from moving forward with the program until data from the five facilities where the system is being used shows the Oracle program has "an ability to deliver health care to veterans at standards that surpass metrics" of the VA's legacy records system, known as VistA, according to the news release.

The senators would also require the VA to come up with a "Plan B" if Oracle does not agree to new contract terms or if VA data shows "it cannot get the technology to work to serve veterans efficiently and safely," the release added. A VA official told lawmakers at a hearing earlier this month that the department does not "have a Plan B."

The bill also contains provisions to reform major acquisitions at the VA aimed at preventing similar issues on any future programs, according to the release.

"VA cannot continue with its current EHR system until it works for providers and keeps patients safe," Murray said in a statement. "I want to make sure the dedicated providers at VA can do their jobs and that our veterans are getting the high-quality care they have earned and deserve. Let's pass the EHR Program RESET Act as soon as possible."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: VA Reviewing Contract for Troubled Medical Records System, Secretary Says

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