While the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is ready to move forward on a new electronic health records (EHR) system, members of Congress are asking for transparency and angling for oversight of an agency that has had its fair share of problems providing services.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee looked at the VA’s EHR plans at a hearing today where it was clear that oversight was on the minds of many members.

“EHR modernization is a big bet on the future of the VA. We simply must make sure it succeeds,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who announced that the Veterans Affairs Committee would form a subcommittee for oversight of the EHR project and other VA modernization efforts.

“There are going to need to be eyes on this all the way, and every one of us up here, we own this now,” declared Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn.

The push for VA oversight turned somewhat combative at today’s hearing as the committee turned to complaints from the agency’s inspector general about a lack of access to records from the agency’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

Committee members also aired complaints about the late notice on VA’s establishment of an office of electronic health modernization, and the absence from the hearing of VA’s acting CIO Camilo Sandoval, among other issues.  Throughout the hearing, the history of the VA’s past service shortfalls cast a lingering shadow, with numerous subcommittee members mentioning a lack of transparency from the agency historically.

“I want to be clear here that going with the DoD solution [on EHR] is the right move, but given the complexity and the cost, and the fact that both VA healthcare and IT acquisitions and operations are on GAO’s high-risk list, this acquisition needs to be effectively managed,” said Dave Powner, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), at today’s hearing.

While Congress may have taken an investigative tone at the hearing, witnesses at today’s event spoke to the benefits of the new EHR system and VA’s $10 billion contract with Cerner to implement the system, particularly the new system’s interoperability with the Department of Defense’s EHR system.

“For transitioning service members and veterans, it will improve care coordination and delivery. It will provide clinicians the tools and data they need to support patient safety, and veteran data will reside in a single hosting site using a common system that enables health data sharing,” said Peter O’Rourke, VA’s acting Secretary.

To promote successful adoption of the EHR system, the VA has established five separate governance boards to deal with different aspects of the effort, as well as collaboration efforts with DoD. Vice Admiral Raquel Bono of the Defense Health Agency (DHA) highlighted the “relatively positive” user feedback DoD received during its EHR implementation trial, and VA officials noted the opportunity to learn from DoD’s experience. The VA aims to begin trials by 2020, and finish full implementation by 2028.

At the end of the day, all parties acknowledged the importance of getting the VA’s EHR transition done right. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, summarized the committee’s sentiment:  “We’re all behind you, but we’re gonna hold your feet to the fire.”

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