$10B set aside to im­prove the VA

The deal is aimed at im­prov­ing med­i­cal wait times for veter­ans and ex­pand­ing ac­cess to doc­tors.

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Hope Yen

WASH­ING­TON — The gov­ern­ment ap­proved a $10 bil­lion deal Thurs­day to over­haul the elec­tronic health records of mil­lions of veter­ans, part of a bid to im­prove wait times and ex­pand ac­cess to doc­tors out­side the Veter­ans Af­fairs sys­tem.

The aim of the con­tract with Cerner Corp. is to pro­vide veter­ans easy ac­cess to their health records upon leav­ing ac­tive-duty ser­vice and when they re­ceive med­i­cal treat­ment at a VA fa­cil­ity or a pri­vate doc­tor re­ferred un­der the VA’s Choice pri­vate-sec­tor pro­gram.

Act­ing VA Sec­re­tary Robert Wilkie said in a state­ment that the 10-year deal would make much­needed im­prove­ments that “will mod­ern­ize the VA’s health care IT sys­tem and help pro­vide seam­less care.”

The VA has said the new in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy sys­tem would be used to sched­ule VA med­i­cal ap­point­ments and sug­gested it could speed up wait times af­ter the 2014 scan­dal in­volv­ing the Phoenix VA med­i­cal cen­ter, in which some veter­ans died while wait­ing months for ap­point­ments. VA of­fi­cials have also ex­pressed hope that a new sys­tem will help it reach out more ef­fec­tively to for­mer ser­vice mem­bers in need of men­tal health treat­ment.

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell said Thurs­day the Se­nate will vote next week on a widerang­ing bill to give veter­ans more free­dom to see doc­tors out­side the VA sys­tem and “send it to the Pres­i­dent’s desk be­fore Me­mo­rial Day.” The bill, passed by the House Wed­nes­day, is an ef­fort to ful­fill Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s prom­ise to ex­pand pri­vate care to veter­ans when­ever they feel un­happy with VA health care.

Veter­ans’ ac­cess to the new elec­tronic records sys­tem is ex­pected to be years away.

The con­tract with Cerner, which de­signed the Pen­tagon’s elec­tronic records sys­tem, is one of the largest in VA’s his­tory. It has drawn con­cern from law­mak­ers that the project could be plagued with prob­lems and ul­ti­mately prove in­ef­fec­tive.

A re­port re­leased last week from the Pen­tagon’s di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tional test and eval­u­a­tion found that a par­tial roll­out of Cerner’s elec­tronic health record for the De­fense Depart­ment is “nei­ther oper­a­tionally ef­fec­tive nor oper­a­tionally suit­able.” The re­port cited, in part, in­ac­cu­rate data and a con­fus­ing lay­out of its elec­tronic records.

“The root cause of these issues must be iden­ti­fied and reme­died be­fore VA im­ple­men­ta­tion can move for­ward,” said Rep. Tim Walz, the top Demo­crat on the House Veter­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, in calling for tougher over­sight of the VA deal.

The con­tract with Cerner came af­ter for­mer VA Sec­re­tary David Shulkin an­nounced the proposed change last June, say­ing he would by­pass a com­pet­i­tive con­tract bid­ding process in an ef­fort to sign a deal as quickly as pos­si­ble. But talks stalled in De­cem­ber amid con­cerns from Shulkin that the com­pany would not be able to ef­fec­tively ex­change a pa­tient’s med­i­cal records with doc­tors out­side the VA who pro­vide care un­der the Choice pro­gram.

Those issues were largely deemed re­solved by VA in Feb­ru­ary, weeks be­fore Shulkin was abruptly fired by Trump and re­placed with Wilkie, a Pen­tagon un­der­sec­re­tary.

Gov­ern­ment au­di­tors have long pointed to the poor con­di­tion of the VA’s IT sys­tem. To ad­dress those con­cerns the VA said it would re­vamp the sys­tem, whether by up­grad­ing it or go­ing to an en­tirely new com­mer­cial prod­uct such as Cerner’s.

ANDREW HARNIK/AP

Rep. Rod­ney Frel­inghuy­sen, R-N.J., speaks dur­ing a hear­ing on mil­i­tary and veter­ans af­fairs spend­ing.

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