Fresh faces in Congress leading VA EHR oversight with new veterans subcommittee

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When the House Veterans Affairs Committee returns from recess after Labor Day, it’ll begin regular oversight of the VA’s $16 billion electronic health record (EHR) modernization initiative.

The $10 billion contract VA signed back in May with Cerner Corporation is the largest IT contract in the department’s history — if not the federal government’s. And it’s why committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) opted to create a new subcommittee to solely devote its attention to VA’s electronic health record modernization and other IT initiatives at the agency.

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The subcommittee’s first hearing is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 13, new Chairman Jim Banks (R-Ind.) said in an interview with Federal News Radio. It will focus on the role of the inter-agency program office

“[We’ll] talk about how that IPO works and how it pulls together, in an inter-agency fashion, members and leaders of the DoD [and] leaders at the VA, to try make this contract work [and] create the interoperability of the electronic health records,” Banks said. “[We’ll] dig deeper into if there are ways that maybe perhaps Congress could give the IPO more authority.”

Banks and the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), have been meeting with VA leadership and key stakeholders from Cerner over the past month. Both subcommittee leaders also plan to review the Cerner contract and the deadlines detailed in that agreement with more detail.

As the subcommittee’s chair and ranking member, Banks and Lamb both have a few things in common. They’re the youngest members of the full House VA committee, and they’re also veterans themselves. Banks said both of those attributes may bring something slightly different to the oversight subcommittee.

Their fellow subcommittee and committee members, for example, have a long memory of VA’s numerous project management failures, but Banks said he hopes he and his Democratic counterpart can view the agency’s EHR modernization efforts with fresh eyes.

“We’re also both brand new to Congress,” Banks said. “We bring that new and fresh perspective. The role of an oversight committee is to hold hearings [and] ask tough questions, which we intend to do. We have three hearings scheduled between now and the end of the year so far, with the possibility of more being scheduled as well.”

Banks has come to understand the importance of congressional oversight during his first term, a lesson that he said Roe has championed on the House VA Committee.

“He understood that oversight needs to begin on the forefront, not wait until it’s too late when there are problems later and along the way, Banks said of the chairman.

The House VA Committee’s decision to create this subcommittee also earned praise from the Government Accountability Office. GAO has been tracking VA’s IT projects and cited them as a contributing factor to place the agency’s health care on the GAO High-Risk list back in 2015.

“That’s great from a congressional point of view and will only help,” outgoing GAO IT Management Issues Director Dave Powner said of the subcommittee’s creation during an “exit” interview on Federal News Radio’s Ask the CIO.

Agencies that have been subject to congressional hearings and other oversight activities have made the most progress on GAO recommendations, Powner said.

VA’s electronic health record will be the House subcommittee’s primary focus for the rest of 2018, Banks said, though he may expand the oversight group’s focus to include other IT initiatives at the project.

IT, for example, has been the biggest impediment for VA’s work in implementing provisions of the Forever GI bill, and though the Veterans Benefits Administration said it was confident, the agency already pushed back the deadline for some of its deliverables  to finish a new appeals processing system.

This all comes as VA still lacks several permanent top leaders, including a deputy secretary and permanent undersecretary for health.

Leadership vacancies and changes have been one of Banks’ biggest concerns so far as he tracks the EHR modernization.

Robert Wilkie has been on the job as VA secretary for less than two weeks now. He did ultimately sign VA’s contract with Cerner back in May when he served as acting secretary and took the place of David Shulkin, who had initially made the decision to take VA in this direction.