WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats are demanding Veterans Affairs leaders fire the department’s acting chief information officer, saying his past involvement with questionable data collection during the 2016 presidential campaign raises concerns about his access to veterans’ personal information.
In a letter to VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman sent Tues., May 15, 11 House and Senate Democrats also decried the “malign neglect” of the department’s electronic health record modernization efforts since VA Secretary David Shulkin was fired in March.
“This is evident through the failure to obtain qualified leadership for the Office of Information Technology, reports of political interference hindering EHR implementation, as well as the rampant vacancies for positions that ensure proper oversight of a new EHR system,” the letter stated.
“We ask that you act to swiftly resolve our concerns and ensure an interoperable VA EHR system with the Department of Defense expeditiously comes to fruition.”
In a statement Wednesday, acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie pushed back on the lawmakers’ request, calling Camilo Sandoval, the acting VA chief information officer, “an important member” of the VA leadership team.
”(He) has extensive experience in financial technology and digital mobile payments,” Wilkie said. “Along with his close working relationship with the White House, this makes him well suited to oversee VA’s IT infrastructure while the White House vets a permanent candidate for the position.”
Wilkie also said finalizing a decision on electronic health record modernization remains a top priority for department leaders. A plan to overhaul Veterans Affairs records was one of President Donald Trump’s most touted achievements last year, but the work has been stalled for weeks since Shulkin’s dismissal.
Multiple sources close to work on the issue say White House officials are wavering on whether to move ahead on contract plans with the Missouri-based Cerner Corp. to bring VA’s electronic medical records systems in line with the Defense Department.
The plan was designed to provide seamless lifelong medical files for service members, and was touted by Shulkin as potentially revolutionary to American medicine because of the interoperability between the massive Defense Department and VA health systems.
But concerns over Cerner’s work with military health officials in recent weeks have lead to a halt in negotiations with the VA contract. The official mostly closely associated with that work — Scott Blackburn, VA’s acting executive for the Office of Information and Technology — left his post last month.
He was replaced by Sandoval, the former data operations director for Trump’s presidential campaign. Democrats in their letter Tuesday called his appointment unacceptable.
“This appointment raises serious data security concerns stemming from Mr. Sandoval’s previous position as the director of data operations in 2016 while the Trump campaign was contracting with Cambridge Analytica,” the letter stated.
“Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of personal information from tens of millions of Americans, including veterans, was an incredible breach of trust. As such, Mr. Sandoval’s role in these activities must be thoroughly examined and he should be put nowhere near veterans’ health and benefits data.”
The letter also references a Politico report that Sandoval is the subject of a $25 million lawsuit for harassment and discrimination against other campaign staffers. The letter signers asked for “a first-class leader who is capable of implementing the VA’s EHR modernization and fulfilling the VA’s obligation to our nation’s heroes” instead of Sandoval.
The letter notes that in the last four months, nearly 40 senior staffers have resigned from the department, “effectively stalling operations in essential areas such as information technology.”
Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have voiced concerns about extensive vacancies at the bureaucracy.
“In order to provide world-class service to our veterans, the VA must be fully staffed with driven, capable leaders,” the letter stated. “Current VA employees, who are dedicated to serving and honoring our veterans, are forced to shoulder the work of former-colleagues, contributing the low morale among the VA workforce.”
Signers of the letter included Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. and ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee; Mark Takano, D-Calif. and the second-ranking Democrat on that panel; and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. and the second-ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.