Veterans panel chairman wants faster action on VA scheduling

VA Secretary David Shulkin and Pence, Walz, Roe 

VA Secretary David Shulkin speaks at his Feb. 14 swearing-in ceremony, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and Reps. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) and David Roe (R-Tenn.) of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Rep. David Roe (R-Tenn.), the new chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, took aim at the Department of Veterans Affairs for not settling on a single scheduling system. The VA is moving ahead with multiple projects to overhaul its old and widely criticized scheduling system.

"Had VA continually pursued the Medical Appointment Scheduling System [MASS] program rather than starting and stopping, the pilot would be nearly completed by now," Roe said. "Instead, veterans, health care providers and other VA employees are left with uncertainty that’s trickling into other parts of the agency."

VA opted to roll out an internally developed scheduling module dubbed Vista Scheduling Enhancement at primary care facilities nationwide in March for a two-month test.

The move to replace VA's outmoded scheduling system will be among the big IT issues facing Dr. David Shulkin, who was sworn in as VA secretary on Feb. 14 after winning confirmation in the Senate on a unanimous vote.

The scheduling tests come with a long backstory.

VA had contracted with electronic health records provider Epic and a subsidiary of Lockheed on a five-year, $624 million plan to add the MASS commercial scheduling module. The contract came in the wake of a scandal at the VA's Phoenix medical center, in which it was revealed that the native Vista scheduling tool lacked a logging function to effectively track allegations of appointment manipulation.

Work on MASS was halted when VA began examining a less expensive solution from its own developers.

"I remain concerned about the attention redirected to Vista scheduling enhancements and other piecemeal patches to VA's IT systems," Roe said in an emailed statement. "The department needs to make a decision on whether or not they will keep Vista or replace it with an off-the-shelf system, and they need to do it quickly. Otherwise, we’ll be having this same conversation 10 years from now, and veterans deserve better," he added.

VA's scheduling woes also came up at a Feb. 15 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing held to discuss the governmentwide High Risk List released by the Government Accountability Office.

"The current scheduling system is 30 years old," said Gene Dodaro, the GAO's comptroller general. "I've raised it on the High Risk List update because I knew it wouldn’t be fixed right away."

Over the past year or so, VA has been evaluating the possibility of transitioning away from its homegrown Vista system altogether and moving to a commercial, off-the-shelf electronic health record.

"You could modify the current systems or you could go commercial," GAO IT specialist Dave Powner said at the Oversight Committee hearing.

Typically, he said, commercial electronic health records systems have scheduling modules. "VA is piloting those initiatives right now," Powner said. "They’re leaning towards the commercial decision. Now that the [VA] secretary is in place, they're waiting for a decision to be made. The decision should be go commercial."

Mark Rockwell contributed to this report.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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