House VA Panel Establishes Technology Modernization Subcommittee

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee today officially approved the creation of a new Technology Modernization Subcommittee to oversee the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Electronic Health Record (EHR) modernization and other major IT projects.

The subcommittee will be chaired by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., and Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., will serve as the ranking member. Other members of subcommittee are Reps. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., Mike Coffman, R-Colo., and Scott Peters, D-Calif.VA is in the midst of a massive technology overhaul, having signed a 10-year, $10 billion contract with Cerner to transition to a new EHR that will be interoperable with the Defense Department’s (DoD) own Cerner EHR. Concerns over ballooning costs and proper use of taxpayer dollars have prompted the House VA Committee to act on the issue.

“Service members deserve a modern interoperable Electronic Health Record that facilitates a seamless transition from active duty to VA,” said committee chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., at the business meeting establishing the subcommittee today. “Veterans and taxpayers expect a new EHR to be delivered on time and within budget.”

Roe, who is a physician, drew from personal experience in referencing the well-documented concerns about VA’s Cerner contract and potential cost overruns.

“I have personally gone through a transition to a new health record system when I was in private practice and I know how much potential there is for a project like this to be a costly disruption,” Roe said. “Congress has a duty to conduct rigorous oversight every step of the way.”

Notably, Roe referenced the budget estimate of $15.8 billion for the EHR project, a figure reported as early as March based on comments made by then-VA Secretary David Shulkin. VA admitted in a June 26 hearing that the $5.8 billion over the Cerner contract value was an accurate estimate to cover infrastructure and project management, but a representative from a government watchdog organization expressed further concerns.

“Not included in the $16 billion are all internal government employee costs, so the ten-year price tag is even higher,” said Dave Powner, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), at the June hearing. “I want to be clear here that going with DoD’s solution is the right move, but given the complexity and cost, and the fact that both VA healthcare and IT acquisitions and operations are both on GAO’s high-risk list, this acquisition needs to be effectively managed.”

The new subcommittee was first announced in the run-up to that June hearing, in a statement made by Roe on June 20. Today marks its official establishment and member assignments, and the new chairman said he’s aware of the challenge ahead.

“The goal is worthy and the strategy incorporates years of recommendations by technical experts,” said Rep. Banks. “However, I have no illusions about the challenge confronting VA in this monumental undertaking. I am committed to asking the tough questions and challenging the bureaucratic status quo.”

Ranking member Lamb, who is a military veteran, said the focus needs to be on the people being served. “Caring for our nation’s veterans must be our top priority as we work to create a more efficient and effective healthcare system at the VA,” he said.

VA Secretary nominee Robert Wilkie is awaiting his confirmation from the full Senate, having been approved without dissent by the Senate VA Committee on Tuesday. Wilkie named the EHR, and IT modernization more broadly, as some of his top priorities for VA.

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