- A group of bipartisan lawmakers sent a letter Feb. 4 to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie encouraging him and his leadership to work with Congress on implementing the department’s $10-billion EHR modernization, “one of the largest information technology modernization projects in our nation’s history.”
The lawmakers criticized Wilkie for providing briefings last year on EHR modernization and other veterans healthcare and benefits programs that were “somewhat limited in scope and details.”
The EHR modernization project has been put on an accelerated timeline and will be implemented at all VA facilities, even those that have yet to upgrade to the Cerner EHR, which is replacing the legacy VistA system.
“As we begin a new Congress, we expect regular, detailed briefings to continue and that you will take a collaborative approach that maximizes transparency and demonstrates your intent that Congress be a full and true partner in implementing these critical laws and initiatives,” the letter said.
The laws cited in the letter included the VA MISSION Act, the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, and the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act.
“With all of the reforms underway simultaneously, it is vital for the VA to share information openly – even pre-decisional information – so that we can work together and have a common understanding of the impact of the changes, including costs, and are able to assess the impact any changes will have on other parts of VA,” the lawmakers wrote.
Regarding the VA MISSION Act in particular, the lawmakers asked Wilkie to supply them with data used to inform the VA’s decision on the proposed access standards, the number of veterans expected to access care, any impact on the department’s internal ability to provide care to veterans, and an implementation plan for the proposed access standards.
“We share the common goal of VA’s success, and our hope is that early, frequent, and fully transparent dialogs will allow VA and Congress to jointly head off the kind of serious missteps we have seen in some recent implementation efforts,” they observed.
“We are hopeful that under your leadership VA can build a more collaborative relationship with Congress in the near-term. We look forward to a cooperative partnership between Congress and VA in order to effectively carry out all of the many programs and initiatives underway that will make VA the model for 21st century delivery of health care and services to veterans,” they concluded.
Signing the letter were Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-GA), committee ranking member Jon Tester (D-MT), Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Chairman John Boozman (R-AR), subcommittee ranking member Brian Schatz (D-HI), House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-CA), committee ranking member David P. Roe (R-TN), House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), and subcommittee ranking member John R. Carter (R-TX).
VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour told Stars and Stripes that the VA was “more transparent than ever before.”
Cashour said that in fiscal year 2018, the agency participated in 71 congressional hearings, a 20 percent increase from the previous fiscal year, and conducted more than 1,302 briefings, a 54 percent increase.
“We welcome congressional oversight, and Secretary Wilkie’s cooperative relationship with lawmakers has helped VA achieve more substantive reforms than at any other time in decades,” Cashour said.
Last month, the Senate confirmed James Gfrerer as the VA’s CIO, the first permanent CIO in two years. Gferer will oversee the EHR modernization program.
VA and the Department of Defense are creating a unified Cerner EHR platform. The DoD’s Cerner EHR platform has been deployed at four Pacific Northwest sites, while the VA has begun initial implementation at pilot sites in the same region.