VA Spent $1 Billion Trying to Modernize VistA

And officials say it will spend $10 billion more moving its EHRs to Cerner.

Appearing before Congress last month to request $782 million to begin the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA)’s electronic health records (EHR) transition, VA Secretary David Shulkin said that the agency “does not have a great history” of delivering IT projects within budget.

The agency’s ongoing tech costs were the subject of an Information Technology Subcommittee meeting yesterday in the House of Representatives.

The modernization of the VA’s legacy technology has been a persistent concern that is affecting millions of veterans,” Rep. William Hurd (R-TX), who chairs the subcommittee, said. “Let's be honest, there is not a track record of successes here.”

According to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the VA spent over $1 billion between 2011 and 2016 trying to modernize its legacy EHR system, VistA. Earlier this year, the agency decided to “get out of the software business” and award an EHR contract to Cerner.

Almost three quarters of the money spent went to 15 contractors, the report said. That list includes Cerner, which will also be taking over EHR services for the Department of Defense (DoD) going forward.

Hurd (pictured) said that he and his congressional colleagues were concerned about the Cerner rollout, given the agency’s rocky IT history. Scott Blackburn, an IT executive for the VA, told the subcommittee that the changeover would take a decade at a cost of $10 billion.

“If I had walked into a boardroom and asked for $10 billion and 10 years before we could get a system deployed, honestly I would have gotten laughed out of the boardroom,” Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) told him.

Blackburn responded that the VA’s move to Cerner would be the “largest implementation of a healthcare system EHR ever.” He said the deal was a cheaper option than continuing to upgrade and maintain VistA: A third-party estimate told the VA that the legacy system would cost them $19 billion over the same time period, “and that would not get us the seamless interoperability that we’re looking for,” by switching to the same platform as DoD, he said.

The VA spends more on IT than all but 3 other federal government agencies, according to GAO

Director of IT Management Dave Powner. The agency spends over $4 billion annually on IT, only a fraction of which goes towards developing or acquiring new systems. The overwhelming majority goes towards payroll and maintaining aging systems.

In addition to VistA, which was developed more than 30 years ago, Powner said that the VA had an accounting system and a claims processing system that were more than 50 years old. At the end of November, Maryland-based technology company CNSI was awarded a 5-year, $44 million contract to update the VA’s claims processing platform.