gettyimages 870969280 A plea for money, then a possible merger: what’s up with VA’s health records system?

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks about issues regarding the VA, during a luncheon at the National Press Club, on November 6, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Kaupanger

So, this is a little confusing: on Wednesday, Veterans Affairs was desperate to move $782 million around in its accounts so they could start payment on the proposed electronic health record system. Today, it’s exploring a merger with the Pentagon’s system.

These two options are really the same thing. The company that won the contract for VA’s new electronic health record (EHR) system is Cerner. It was chosen partially because the DoD is already using Cerner as its EHR provider. DoD has started implementation of the Cerner system in the Pacific Northwest, and VA wants the money so it can have VA facilities in the area start the swap over at the same time.

VA Secretary, Dr. David J. Shulkin, was at the House Appropriations Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee hearing this week and asked that Congress move the money so the VA could start changing its ancient electronic health record system, HER. The money would come from a couple different areas: $374 million from the current budget, $324 million from the patient care fund and $50 million from a staff hiring budget.

“We have to do this quickly,” Shulkin said. “We have achieved substantial discounts by aligning our HER deployment and implementation with the Department of Defense’s.” But to get this deal, the paperwork needs to be signed and payments made by the end of the month.

The money would be repurposed from the medical care budget that was set for next year. Shulkin explained that this money would have been used to buy medical equipment, but that it could be procured later. Some on the subcommittee pushed back at this idea. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) brought up that the VA’s 2018 budget already had $245 million cut from its medical equipment budget. He thought these additional cuts were “a hard sell.”

“We will achieve DoD interoperability,” Shulkin told the subcommittee. “This has taken way too long, and there have been many false starts along the way.” The EHR system is supposed to be live 18 months after the contract is signed.

John H. Windom, VA’s EHR Modernization Executive Director also said, “by us deploying into the same geographical area, we’ll be able to leverage the resources that are already in that area.” He also said that the overall cost of the 10-year project could increase by up to 5 percent if VA doesn’t do it’s EHR rollout with DoD. It’s been reported that the Cerner contract could cost more than $10 billion.

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