Veterans Affairs leaders would be blocked from deploying the department’s new electronic health records system at any additional medical centers until significant safeguards are put in place, under legislation introduced Tuesday by House Republicans.
“[The system] has crippled the delivery of care, put veteran patient safety at risk, and stressed an already overwhelmed healthcare system,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., said in a statement accompanying the unveiling of the bill.
“While I commend the [VA] secretary for pausing deployment of the new electronic health record at future sites, I am not confident that will be enough.”
Last October, VA leaders announced that all future deployments of the Oracle Cerner records platform would be delayed until at least June 2023 “to address challenges with the system and make sure it is functioning optimally for veterans and for VA health care personnel.”
Earlier on Tuesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters he had no update on when that software rollout might proceed.
“I feel the frustration that it has not been rolled out more quickly and efficiently,” he said. “But we owe it to our vets to get them that modern health record, and we owe it to the American taxpayer … to do this in a way that’s sustainable over time.”
The 10-year, $16 billion records overhaul was put in motion by President Donald Trump in 2017 and was meant to bring veterans’ health records in line with military files. In the past, the two agencies used separate records systems with intermediary programs to transfer data between them, causing information issues for patients and physicians.
But the deployment of the new records system has featured numerous setbacks. In spring 2022, an inspector general report found that at least 148 veterans were harmed by medical record mistakes and shortfalls after the system was implemented at initial sites in Washington state.
In addition, researchers found the system failed to deliver more than 11,000 orders for specialty care, lab work and other services, all without alerting health care providers the orders had been lost.
The problems have prompted questions in Congress — particularly among Republican lawmakers — about whether the project should be abandoned. Both McDonough and officials from Oracle Cerner have said they are committed to making the system work.
“We have a particular need here for the health record,” McDonough said. “We want to be in a position on a modern electronic health record where we can easily access a service member’s record, going back through all of her years in active duty. Our ability to be able to do that with the Defense Department is extraordinarily important.”
The new legislation mandates that before the software is installed at any new VA sites, each VA medical center director, chief of staff, and network director would be required to “certify that the [records] system has been correctly configured for the site … and it would not negatively impact safety, quality, or current wait times.”
Additionally, VA and Oracle Cerner would be required to provide evidence that the system has overcome numerous glitches and run-time issues.
Last week, The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, reported that VA hospitals using the records system suffered major slowdowns after an update to the software caused “performance degradation.” Similar problems have occurred numerous times in recent months.
“The Oracle Cerner electronic health record is deeply flawed, causing issues for medical staff and posing patient safety risks,” said Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., chairman of the veterans’ committee’s panel on technology, in a statement. “We cannot continue to further implement this inadequate system at the expense of billions of dollars in government funding.”
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee members are expected to review the bill in coming weeks. No timeline has been announced for when the measure could be passed out of committee or voted on by the full chamber.
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.