Is Oracle Cerner’s VA EHRM implementation going to be tied up? Senate Veterans Affairs Committee says yes–with two oncoming trains (bills).

Both Republican and Democrat Senators proposed separate bills on Wednesday with the same purpose–fix the implementation of Oracle Cerner’s EHR in the VA and increase oversight. Members of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs want to put the brakes on the entire implementation process until at minimum certain requirements have been met and the EHR modernization (EHRM) works at a level surpassing the existing VistA system.

The Republican bill drafted (without number yet) is being introduced by Bill Cassidy, MD (R-LA) and Jerry Moran (R-KS), joined by John Boozman (R-AR), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), Jim Risch (R-ID), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Mike Braun (R-IN) and Steve Daines (R-MT). In its present form, the six-page bill calls for a complete halt to implementation until the following is achieved:

  • Meeting improvement objectives in uptime and system-wide stability as defined by the VA Secretary and staff
  • Submission of a 30-day report to the Senate VA Committee systems that includes reporting on Department of Defense networks within the Federal electronic health record environment, training, and workflows for facilities of differing complexity
  • Quarterly reports on readiness and deviations
  • Individual readiness certifications for each facility receiving the Oracle Cerner EHR

Overall, the draft reads like an interim reform measure that is at the opposite pole from their colleagues in the House, who’d like to call the whole thing off and terminate the EHRM in H.R. 608 [TTA 1 Feb].  Bill Cassidy’s office release is short and to the point

The Democrat bill, not yet drafted but promised in a release from Patty Murray’s (D-WA) office really brings out the pitchforks and pitch. At length. With lots of quotes from Senators Murray, Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) designed to make hay with their states. (But will they put the needed fear in Oracle’s Mike Sicilia and Larry Ellison, two men who could buy and sell these senators?) Here’s a sample of the fire: 

  • Develop clear metrics to guide whether and how VA should go forward with the new EHR at additional VA facilities and require additional resources to support those facilities;
  • Require VA and Oracle Cerner to fix the technology features connected to the health safety and delivery issues found in VA’s March 2023 Sprint Report;
  • Not move forward with the new EHR at other VA health facilities until the data at the existing five facilities demonstrates an ability to deliver health care to veterans at standards that surpass metrics using VA’s VistA system or that meet national health operations standards as determined by the Under Secretary for Health;
  • Appoint a lead senior negotiator and leverage other federal agencies and independent outside experts to offer advice and strategies for managing aggressive EHR contract negotiations with Oracle Cerner to protect taxpayers and veterans;
  • Develop an alternative “Plan B” strategy for a new EHR in the event Oracle Cerner will not agree to new contract terms that protect taxpayers and increase accountability and penalties for poor performance or when VA data shows it cannot get the technology to work to serve veterans efficiently and safely

The normal Senate processes may unify these bills and make them bipartisan–a good start. But this ‘great deliberative body’ needs to move quickly as the entire VA health system is at stake. (This Editor notes that the Ellisonesque crowing about the transformation of healthcare has been notably absent these past few months, perhaps absorbed by the troubles, the Cerner layoffs, and reputed difficulties with Cerner health system clients.) Hat tip to HISTalk today.

Also on Wednesday, the House, which holds fiscal purse strings, is considering capping the VA’s budget at fiscal 2022 levels. Secretary Denis McDonough at a House Appropriations Committee meeting stated that there would be a $345 million shortfall within the VA Office of Information Technology (OIT) affecting the EHRM, as well as a $465 million shortfall in infrastructure and technology funding regarding major construction elements. In OIT, the EHRM is the third largest outlay with cybersecurity the largest. The FY2024 proposed budget has $6.4 billion for the OIT’s ongoing modernization and veteran IT services, with $1.9 billion for the EHRM alone. FedScoop

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