The Department of Veterans Affairs will be required to regularly report the performance -- including incidents that risk patient safety -- of its troubled electronic health records systems to Congress under new legislation headed to the president's desk.
The Senate approved a bill Thursday to require the VA to submit quarterly reports to lawmakers on the performance and costs of the Electronic Health Record Modernization program, or EHRM. The bill already passed the House in a voice vote in November, meaning it now heads to President Joe Biden for his signature.
A VA hospital in Spokane, Washington, was forced to suspend patient admissions and appointments after the records system, estimated by the agency to cost $16.1 billion, crashed in March. Multiple inspector general reports and news stories have highlighted issues with the rollout of the system that risked patient safety, as well as cost overruns.
"The VA, and consequently our nation, has invested a great deal of time and money into the VA Electronic Health Record Modernization program," Senate Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said in a statement.
The legislation will "ensure veterans receive the care they deserve and hold the VA accountable for taxpayer dollars," Moran said.
The reports ordered by Congress, which would continue until after the program is fully implemented, would in part have to include "a list of patient safety reports, incidents, alerts or disclosures" at each facility where the new electronic system is in use.
The system, built by health technology powerhouse Cerner, was first launched at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane in November 2020. After several delays, it was also rolled out in Walla Walla, Washington, and Columbus, Ohio, earlier this year.
In March, the VA inspector general released a series of three reports that found the system failed to flag patients who had been identified as suicide risks, gave doctors inaccurate information about patients' medications, and caused delays in scheduling appointments, among other patient safety risks.
Those reports came after the IG in a pair of 2021 reports found the VA's $16.1 billion cost estimate for the program is likely an underestimate of as much as $5.1 billion because planning and reports to Congress did not include physical and IT infrastructure costs.
There have also been media reports of glitches and shortcomings, including dozens of crashes. The issues have prompted some lawmakers to call on the VA to halt the rollout of the program.
"The EHR has been very frustrating, very disruptive and even dangerous for some of our patients," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told VA Secretary Denis McDonough at a congressional hearing earlier this month. "I do not want EHR to move an inch further in my state until all of this is fixed and ready to go."
Murray said reports from her constituents in the state show the system is "plagued" by problems.
VA officials have pledged to work with lawmakers to assuage their concerns but also claim the problems with the system are being ironed out.
"Spokane's getting better, but it's not perfect," McDonough told Murray at the hearing. "I'm not suggesting it is. Walla Walla's not been perfect, but it's been better. So far, in day six in Columbus, we're seeing reasonable results, but again, it's early."