This week, the House Veterans Affairs Committee will have its hands full with hearings on two major IT projects at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that have both recently been subject to scrutiny in the press and in Congress.
EHR Modernization Efforts Under Scrutiny
On Wednesday, the Subcommittee on Technology Modernization will review the VA’s progress on its electronic health record (EHR) modernization efforts, 180 days after the department signed a contract with Cerner to provide a new EHR system. The subcommittee, stood up specifically to oversee the VA’s $10 billion contract for the EHR system, has most recently looked into cooperation between the VA and the Department of Defense on making sure their systems remain interoperable.
A recent report from ProPublica could play a major role in the hearing. The report highlighted early failures in the modernization effort, asserted that the project may be being unduly influenced by supporters of President Trump, and questioned the interoperability of VA’s new system and DoD’s MHS GENESIS effort to modernize its EHR system. The ProPublica report points to a 2016 report stating that upgrading to a commercial system “offered no benefit,” includes an interview with a VA CIO candidate who supports the claims of undue influence from White House supporters, and a presentation with private sector officials warning against a commercial system.
“The people now in charge have no experience in health care. They have gone against expert advice. And they have been consumed by infighting,” the report states, citing “hundreds of pages of internal documents and dozens of interviews with current and former officials, congressional staff and outside experts.”
ProPublica’s reporting has already caused concern in Congress.
“Unfortunately, a recent investigative report has alleged that systemic deficiencies in leadership and expertise at VA, as well as outside influence, unnecessary politicization, and infighting at the highest levels of the Department, could threaten the entire $16 billion project and put veterans’ lives at risk. Let me be clear, veterans and taxpayers cannot afford to have this project fail and this Committee must get to the bottom of these allegations,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Delayed GI Bill Benefits Blamed on IT Failures
On Thursday, the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity will hold a hearing on the VA’s plans to implement the Forever GI Bill, which expands benefits for military personnel and their families, and reported delays in payments from the program.
A recent report from NBC News, released on Veterans Day, points to difficulties within VA’s IT department and late notice from the department as the cause of the delays. The report has garnered attention since then, especially on social media.
“The cause of the difficulty lies within VA’s Office of Information Technology, which was tasked with implementing a change to how the housing allowance was calculated, the agency said,” according to the NBC report. “The Forever GI Bill required that housing would be based on the ZIP code of where a veteran went to school, not where he or she lived. Issues that arose when VA attempted to stress-test their antiquated system, and a contract dispute over the new changes, meant VA waited until July 16 to tell schools to begin enrolling students, according to multiple veteran advocacy groups,” reported NBC News.
In a response to MeriTalk, the VA noted that implementing the Forever GI Bill has “led to processing issues, and VA is committed to providing a solution that is reliable, efficient and effective.” The department also noted that “testing is ongoing on the IT solution” for the issue.
The subcommittee’s meeting notice anticipates what could be a rough day for VA IT officials on the Hill as well, as they discuss modernization efforts in the context of this issue.
“The Subcommittee Members will discuss VA’s efforts to improve IT functionalities to handle new mandates under the law. The subcommittee will review explanations for the IT failures that have led to students and schools receiving the wrong payments and associated processing delays for tuition, fees and the monthly housing allowance,” the committee stated.