IBM, Epic already prepping for military EHR work

Though DOD is months away from making an award in its $11 billion electronic health record contract, IBM and health record partner Epic are readying plans to transform the way the military provides health care to service members and families.

Shutterstock image: digital records.

Though the Department of Defense is months away from making an award in its $11 billion electronic health record contract, IBM and health record partner Epic are busy prepping to start work on plans to transform the way the military provides health care to service members and their families.

The IBM team has plenty of competition from other teams of top federal technology integrators and electronic health records providers. But since announcing its bid back in June 2014, IBM has been exuding confidence that its team is in the best position to land the deal and execute the military's vision for a new health care system.

"For IBM this is a grand challenge that comes once in a decade, or once in a century," said Andy Maner, head of IBM Federal Services in a roundtable with reporters. "One of the things that we wanted to do was to establish a path of work, really over the last year, so that if and when ... we are awarded it, we are ready to go on day one."

The Defense Healthcare Management Systems Modernization program calls for an initial capability to be in place in 2016. According to Maner, that aggressive timetable requires the pre-award activity.

IBM has installed an Epic Foundation system -- a starter configuration offered by Epic to new customers -- on a secure, IBM-operated data center at the Allegany Ballistics Laboratory in West Virginia.

"What we wanted to do was have Epic running and have the opportunity to integrate and test, add new functionality, integrate other pieces of the big package so that there were no surprises," Maner said. "We just wanted to make sure we were getting ahead. Obviously Epic is live all over the country, but we wanted to be a step ahead in a DOD-hardened environment."

Maner wouldn't offer a dollar figure on the expense of the testing, but he said it was "substantial."

Epic President Carl Dvorak explained the early move will also help test the performance of an Epic system on a data center and network that meets Defense Information Systems Agency guidelines for security. An IBM spokesperson told FCW that testing on the Epic system has been ongoing since November 2014.

The IBM-Epic team also announced the formation of an advisory group of 17 medical informatics specialists, hospital administrators, physicians and others who have worked to integrate Epic into large systems. Unlike a lot of big-ticket defense procurement, the DHMSM has analogs in the private sector. The Department of Defense is expecting to cover 9.6 million service-members, retirees, and dependents with its EHR, and Kaiser Permanente covers a population that size with an Epic system. Former CIO Bruce Turkstra is advising the IBM-Epic group on implementation.

The IBM-Epic group is also getting the patient perspective from Maj. William Lyles, a former Army Special Forces team leader who lost his legs serving in Afghanistan in 2010. He has experienced some hiccups in getting referred out of Army treatment to private physicians, and in his transition to Veterans Affairs care. "I'm not by any means trashing the current setup," he said, adding that he hoped information he shared about his experience could help other injured service-members in the future.

Maner said he hopes that the pre-award testing and the use of a group of experienced hands as advisors will become a new best practice in technology integration. The IBM-Epic move should not be seen, he said, as a possible sweetener to their DHMSM proposal.

"We handed in our bid. Our bid's done. What we're talking about is a new way to operate in federal. We want to get ahead. This isn't extra credit on a test. We believe we're going to win, and we want to be successful," Maner said.

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