Military Health Record Milestone Delayed as VA Requests $1 Billion Funding Increase

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(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The Department of Veterans Affairs is delaying staff training for the new electronic health record (EHR) system this week and will announce a revised schedule in "the coming weeks," a VA spokesman said via email Wednesday.

The move comes the same week the VA unveiled its $243.3 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2021, which would give the EHR office $2.6 billion -- nearly double this year's funding -- and increase the number of staff working on the EHR project by 68%.

The VA has been working with a contracting company, Cerner, since 2018 on a ten-year project to develop a new system that can transfer health records from the Pentagon so new veterans do not have to physically carry a copy of their record of treatment with them. It would also combine the VA's health record programs so staff can spend more time with patients. The pilot was supposed to launch in March at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington.

"After rigorous testing of our new EHR, the department will need more time to complete the system build and ensure clinicians and other users are properly trained on it," the spokesman said. "We believe we are 75-80 percent complete in this regard."

He also said the VA was taking into account feedback from Congress who have "urged the department not to rush its electronic health record modernization efforts."

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"VA leaders have heard that call, and are proceeding deliberately and thoughtfully to adhere to the project's ten-year timeline," he said, "which calls for a rolling implementation schedule through 2027."

But one prominent veterans organization raised concerns in a letter to the Veterans Health Administration on Feb. 3 that the EHR rollout was going to take away a veteran's ability to request prescriptions online and to access their complete medical record.

"We regret that this long-awaited project needs to be further delayed," Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America CEO Jermy Butler said in a statement Wednesday. "But ultimately this was the right call given the apparent reduction in online services that would have resulted. However, that does not alleviate my frustration that the VA did not keep us informed of the known deficiencies in the new system."

Congress has previously expressed skepticism about the new EHR plan meeting its timeline. Thus, while House Veterans Affairs committee members were supportive of the VA's decision, lawmakers wanted more information.

"While I respect the need to make this tough decision," Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nevada, said in a tweet, "I want to be sure that we have key action items and schedules to address these issues and roll out the EHRM without harming our veterans. That's why I'm calling for a subcommittee hearing to further investigate."

The date for that hearing has not yet been announced.

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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