Developers of the embattled electronic health records system that Veterans Affairs officials hope to deploy in coming years are pushing back against accusations the software is an unfixable failure, asserting instead that it represents the only reasonable path ahead for veteran patients.
In a message posted Friday, Oracle Executive Vice President Ken Glueck said that abandoning the new Millennium records system project would be “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” and insisted that officials are close to providing “seamless” care for patients from the day they enlist in the military through their post-service health care needs.
“The same [records] technology rolled out across VA is being successfully rolled out across the Defense Department,” he wrote. “And, by the way, this is the same system successfully deployed in thousands of commercial and public hospitals around the world.
“So, if it works at the Defense Department and at hospitals across the United States, then why can’t it work at the VA? Of course, it can, and it is.”
The public relations push comes as a growing number of lawmakers have proposed scaling back or further delaying the health records modernization project amid mounting problems with the software.
Last month, Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s panel on technology — introduced legislation which would terminate the program completely. The full committee’s chairman, Illinois Republican Rep. Mike Bost, is a co-sponsor of the bill.
Eight other lawmakers have backed legislation to block any future deployments until certain quality and transparency requirements are met.
The electronic health records project has been ongoing for four years and has already cost about $4 billion. The effort was originally slated to take 10 years and about $16 billion, but outside analysts have questioned whether either of those marks can be achieved given recent problems with the software.
Last October, VA leaders announced that all future deployments of the Oracle Cerner records platform would be delayed until at least June 2023 “to address challenges with the system and make sure it is functioning optimally for veterans and for VA health care personnel.”
In a press event last week, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said whether work will resume then will depend on whether a series of issues with the Millennium software are resolved.
Thus far, the software has only been deployed to five medical centers out of the 171 in the VA healthcare system, which also includes hundreds of outpatient sites. But physicians at those sites have reported numerous frustrations and serious concerns with the change. Last spring, the VA inspector general report found at least 148 veterans were harmed by medical record mistakes and shortfalls after the system was implemented in the first few sites alone.
Glueck — whose company acquired Cerner last summer — said that since Oracle’s takeover, many of those issues have been addressed. The company has posted an online tracker of problems identified by lawmakers to show the status of fixes, and said they are working with medical centers and veterans groups on additional improvements.
He also downplayed the idea that department leaders can abandon the Millennium project and instead work on fixes to VistA, the 40-year-old health records system used at most VA medical centers today.
“VA has tried to modernize VistA several times in the past. … The truth is, there is not enough time or money to ever make VistA work like a modern system,” he wrote.
That was the argument posed by Cerner officials and members of President Donald Trump’s administration in 2017, when the contract for the health records overhaul was awarded. Members of President Joe Biden’s White House have backed the plan but promised to make sure fixes are made before installing the system at further sites.
“We are working collaboratively with our dedicated partners in the VA to drive this effort forward,” Glueck wrote. “We are proud of the work we are doing, and we intend to exceed expectations. Our veterans deserve no less.”
Oracle officials (including Glueck) are likely to find themselves before Congress in coming months to back up those promises. Bost has already promised intense scrutiny by his committee in coming months on the issue, calling it an issue of both wasteful spending and the safety of veteran patients.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.