With the Veteran’s Affairs initiative to transition their electronic health records system from the current VistA program to a new system implemented by health IT company Cerner, officials hope to both make the agency interoperable with the Department of Defense’s system and to kickstart their data center consolidation efforts.

“I think that data center consolidation really needs to go hand-in-hand with this migration to the commercial Cener product. That’s where there’s a real opportunity to save a lot of money in the data center area. We’re spending a lot of money, but we can get a huge return from a data center point of view,” said Government Accountability Office director of IT management issues Dave Powner at a recent hearing on the subject.

That cost, $10billion over 10 years to be exact, represents the largest implementation of an electronic health record system ever, according to Scott Blackburn, acting CIO of the VA. If successful, the change would enable servicemembers to keep the same health record while transitioning from active service to retirement and prevent doctors from needing to fill out duplicative information about patients.

“Our new electronic health records system will enable VA to keep pace with the improvements in health IT and cybersecurity, which the current system, VistA, is unable to do,” said Blackburn.

Though the VA’s IT initiatives as a whole received a B+ on the most recent Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act scorecard, which measures agency success at implementing a variety of IT initiatives and best practices, the agency received a failing grade in data center consolidation.

According to a recent GAO report, the VA reported a total inventory of 415 data centers, of which 39 had been closed as of August 2017 and 10 more were scheduled to be closed by the end of the 2018 fiscal year.

“They fall far short of [the Office of Management and Budget’s] goals on closures, savings and also with the optimization metrics,” said Powner.

According to Powner, many of the agency’s data centers are already tied up in the current electronic healthcare system.

“We would like to get it down to 14 core data centers by the end of 2020. In addition to that, we would have 42 special purpose data centers,” said Blackburn.

According to John Windom, program executive for electronic health records modernization at the VA, the Cerner system has a data management hosting system called “Healthy Intent,” which the agency plans to move data into and is similar to the DoD solution.

“That gives us, again, that seamless movement of data into DoD environments,” said Windom.

Initial deployment of the Cerner system is expected to occur in the next 18 months, according to Powner, though the complete transition will take longer.

“If we’re able to integrate DoD and VA, the two largest healthcare providers in the world, then we’re going to be able to integrate to every other system. So the VA is going to be back to setting the curve and being on the cutting-edge,” said Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas. “This is the opportunity that we have here and if we can’t do it in 10 years with $10billion then it’s never going to get done.”

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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