VA loses its CIO, creating further uncertainty for EHR modernization

The Veterans Affairs Department is losing another top leader.

Scott Blackburn, the executive in charge of VA’s Office of Information and Technology, is resigning, effective immediately.

Blackburn had effectively been serving as the department’s acting chief information officer since October 2017. As acting CIO, he served as one of the leading figures behind VA’s electronic health record modernization.

A VA spokesman confirmed Blackburn’s resignation. The department has not yet named a replacement, the spokesman told Federal News Radio. Bill James is the current acting principal deputy assistant secretary at VA OI&T and could take Blackburn’s place as the acting head of the office.

In his resignation letter, Blackburn gave no specific reason for his departure. He praised both former VA Secretaries Bob McDonald and David Shulkin for the opportunity to serve as an interim deputy secretary, senior adviser on transformation and executive director of McDonald’s MyVA Task Force.

“My effort has always been about better caring for veterans regardless of presidential administration, Republican or Democrat, and I have been honored to serve alongside both in a bipartisan way,” Blackburn wrote.

“I wish the very best for those in VA who are dedicated to caring for veterans and I will pray every day for their success,” he added. “I will remain both VA’s biggest cheerleader and critic from afar. I remain optimistic about the future — as I know that no matter what, VA will continue to be held up by the 360,000 plus dedicated public servants serving veterans every day so many of which are veterans themselves; and I know veterans, veterans advocates, veterans service organizations and lawmakers will keep VA leadership in check and accountable.”

Blackburn’s departure creates even more uncertainty for the status of VA’s electronic health record modernization. Former VA Secretary Shulkin had announced the department’s plans to move away from existing Veterans Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) and adopt the same commercial, off-the-shelf electronic health record as the Defense Department .

That project has already experienced its fair share of setbacks and uncertainties. Though VA said it intends to follow DoD’s same plan to deploy the new EHR at sites first along the Pacific Northwest, the Pentagon has also had its own early problems with implementation.

In addition, Shulkin late last year had paused contract negotiations with Cerner Corporation, the lead vendor on VA’s EHR modernization. Shulkin had last told Congress he hoped VA would be ready to move forward with the vendor “soon,” but the department has not announced any further announcements.

Members of the federal IT community, along with veterans service organizations, had already expressed concerns that Shulkin’s departure would “slam the brakes” on any major reform efforts, including the EHR project.

During Blackburn’s tenure as acting CIO, VA’s information technology office closed some data centers and began upgrading its infrastructure to prepare for the new health record.

VA also launched a new online tool to help veterans track their disability compensation appeals.

Blackburn’s departure also creates another major hole in VA’s leadership cadre.

Acting officials now hold nearly all of VA’s top leadership positions, including the secretary, undersecretaries for the Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration, and now the CIO. Many of those positions have been open for nearly 400 days.

The Senate, however, does plan to vote Wednesday on Paul Lawrence’s nomination to be VBA undersecretary. If Lawrence moves forward, the Senate will hold a full vote on his nomination.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Iskason (R-Ga.) met Monday with Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House’s pick to be VA secretary. Isakson said April 25 is the earliest his committee could consider Jackson’s nomination.