Here comes the VA’s new electronic health records system

Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin talks to reporters in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House May 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs will be overhauling its electronic health records, adopting a commercial product used by the Pentagon that he hopes will improve care for veterans and reduce wait times for medical appointments, Secretary David Shulkin said Monday.

Shulkin made the announcement at a news conference following a promotional tweet by President Donald Trump that it will “be a big day for our veterans.”

The system would replace the VA’s aging information technology system, known as Vista, which has been in use for decades.

“It’s time to move forward, and as secretary, I was not willing to put this decision off any longer,” Shulkin said.

Under the proposed change, the VA will work immediately to sign a contract with Cerner Corp., which designed the Pentagon’s system known as MHS Genesis. Shulkin says because all the VA’s patients as former service members originate in the Pentagon system, the VA would be better served if it could “trade information seamlessly.”

To expedite the process, Shulkin said he intended to bypass competitive bidding in favor of Cerner, noting that it took the Pentagon 26 months to finalize its contact. He expects it will take the VA about three to six months to negotiate pricing and work out a timeframe for full implementation of the new system. He did not offer a cost estimate, but noted the Pentagon signed a $4.3 billion contract for its health system, which is smaller than VA’s.

Shulkin said he also wants to adapt the new system so it can work easily with various health record systems of private doctors outside the VA. The VA plans an expansion of its Choice program of private-sector care.

“This is a high-risk process,” he said, acknowledging there are “no guarantees” of a smooth roll-out. “I think this will make a big difference for veterans everywhere.”

Speaking at the White House, Trump hailed the VA announcement, saying that in the past “it has taken not just days or weeks but many months for the records to follow the veteran.” He said that has “caused massive problems for our veterans.”

Acknowledging “there is still much work to do,” Trump said the announcement was “truly wonderful, really monumental reform.”

Veterans’ groups reacted with cautious optimism.

“The Trump administration’s focus today on solving this problem is encouraging. But making this announcement is the easy part,” said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “The hard part is actually getting it done.”

Government auditors have long pointed to the poor condition of the VA’s IT system, and Shulkin made it clear earlier this year that he would be making a decision on revamping it by July — whether by upgrading it or going to a new commercial “off the shelf” product.

Shulkin said Monday the new IT system would be used to schedule VA medical appointments, offering opportunities for improvement after the 2014 scandal involving delays at the Phoenix VA medical center. He also expressed hope that a new system will help the VA reach out more effectively to former service members in need of mental health treatment.

In a “State of the VA” report released last week, Shulkin said the VA was “still in critical condition” despite efforts to reduce wait times for appointments and expand care in the private sector.

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Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.

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