Congress Allots $1.2B for New VA EHR System

Ryan Black

The agency's former Chief Information Officer, who resigned last week, doesn't think the VA's leadership turnover will jeopardize its Cerner plans.

Image derived from a 1986 poster for the Department of Veterans' Affairs Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetary. Source image is in the public domain.

The House Appropriations Committee released the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) 2019 budget today. The bill allots a $9 billion overall bump in funding, which includes $1.2 billion for “activities related to implementation, preparation, development, interface, management, rollout, and maintenance” of a modernized electronic health records (EHR) system.

The planned deal with Cerner—yet to be formalized and never referred to by name in the bill—is still supposed to go ahead, according to former VA Chief Information Officer Scott Blackburn.

“Things are still moving forward to the best of my knowledge, and I’m looking forward to seeing that contract signed in the next couple of months,” he reportedly said at a summit this week, just days after resigning from his post at the agency. He added that he didn’t think his departure or the recent firing of VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, had derailed the initiative.

>>READ: So, Who's Left at the VA, and What Does that Mean for the Cerner Deal?

The bill means to ensure the VA implement an EHR system “identical to one being developed for [the Department of Defense].” Cerner won a $4.3 billion contract to handle DoD’s health records in 2015—at the time, it was the biggest EHR contract ever signed. Earlier this month, the currently EHR-less Coast Guard announced its intent to join in DoD’s arrangement with Cerner and install the same system, a custom build of the company’s Millennium platform.

The $1.2 billion will remain available to VA until the end of September 2021. Early estimates put the total project cost close to $10 billion over the course of its 10-year rollout, although it may exceed that: In March, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz referred to the plan as a “$16 billion project that will take a very long time.

The newly-released appropriations bill requires the Secretary of the VA to submit quarterly reports to both houses of Congress detailing the obligations, expenditures, and implementation considerations associated with the new system.

That is, if the VA can find a permanent Secretary. DoD’s Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Robert Wilkie, has been the acting head of the agency since Shulkin’s firing one month ago. White House physician Ronny Jackson, MD, had been nominated as his replacement and was awaiting confirmation hearings before those were postponed amid reports about his previous conduct.

Whoever replaces Wilkie will be the 4th person to serve as VA Secretary, in a temporary or permanent capacity, in the first year and 2 months of the current Presidential administration. That would exceed the number who have held the role under any prior 4- or 8-year administration.

Related Coverage:

Coast Guard Hops on Defense Department's Cerner Pact

Shulkin Fears Polarization, Privatization of VA Following Dismissal

VA Secretary Says Agency Must Replace "130" Different EHR Systems