Program Management

Shinseki: VA to move forward with electronic records

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told members of Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs that iEHR will have "full operational capability in 2017."

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki insisted at an April 15 congressional hearing that the VA will move forward on a joint electronic health records system with the Defense Department, even as Pentagon officials are pausing to review their approach.

Shinseki testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs on the VA's $153 billion budget request for fiscal 2014, which he said includes $3.7 billion for IT systems aimed to increase healthcare quality and benefits. Among those systems are efforts to digitize and integrate medical records -- many of which have come under fire in recent months for falling behind schedule.

"Currently the VA has several IT projects vital to... this nation's veterans," said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee's ranking member. "This unclear nature of the IT budget stands in way of Congress' ability to conduct effective oversight of these programs to ensure they are operating efficiently and meeting milestones."

Burr voiced concerns that included spending on continued development of the VA's virtual lifetime electronic record and integrated electronic health record, funding of the new paperless veterans benefits management system and the costs of a new patient scheduling system.

The lightning rod of the VA's IT programs is the iEHR, which would receive $344 million in fiscal 2014, including $252 million for development under the joint VA-DOD Interagency Program Office. Progress on the program was thrown into doubt back in February when Shinseki and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a shift in strategy in the effort to achieve a single, integrated platform for sharing health information between the two agencies.

Soon after the announcement, the Government Accountability Office and lawmakers on Capitol Hill raised concerns over the program's potential new trajectory.

In the VA committee budget hearing, Shinseki reiterated the VA's stance that leadership there is not backing down on 15-year-old efforts to share medical records between the VA and DOD.

"As far as the VA is concerned, we are committed to it," Shinseki said. "We are waiting on DOD signaling to us...we have an agreement here. I believe we are on track. [Defense Secretary Chuck] Hagel asked for the opportunity to review his structure and process, and that's what he's doing right now."

At question is what platform DOD will use as its core system for sharing information. It is unclear how the two agencies would effectively share data between two different platforms -- the goal has been for a single platform for both agencies – but Shinseki was firm in the VA's decision to continue with its VISTA core. He also seemed to hint that any uncertainties rest in DOD's indecision regarding its core.

Shinseki could not answer lawmakers' questions on what kind of timeline currently is on the table, but maintained commitment to the program as planned.

"I don’t know when, but both secretaries are pushing hard," he said. "For VA we have chosen VISTA as our core. We are committed to a 2014 initial operating capability for iEHR... and follow-on full operational capability in 2017. That's the plan and that's what both departments have agreed to."

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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