Veterans Affairs officials said they plan to resume deployment of their controversial new electronic health records system in June, but a government watchdog warned that the effort is likely to fail if leaders can’t first restore faith in the software among staff and patients.

Members of Congress expressed similar skepticism on the future of the project, given numerous setbacks and delays over the last 18 months. The 10-year, $16 billion project is designed to put VA medical records on the same system as the Defense Department, but only five sites have begun using the software since it was first rolled out in late 2020.

“I don’t see what has fundamentally changed in system training or program management [in recent months] that will make the implementation more successful,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He said results so far “suggest to me that the whole effort may be sleepwalking forward and extremely disruptive.”

But officials with VA and Oracle Cerner — the company behind the new medical records software — insisted that improvements in recent months have put the modernization project on better footing, allowing new deployments to resume this summer.

Mike Sicilia, executive vice president at Oracle, testified before the committee on Wednesday that system glitches have been addressed since VA last fall ordered a halt to all new deployments, a pause slated to last until at least June 2023.

In late 2022, the software averaged 345 minutes of down time a month. Oracle officials said for January and February of this year, that figure was down to 21 minutes a month.

“As I look back on what has been accomplished in the last nine months, I am more optimistic than ever that we are now on the right trajectory,” Sicilia said.

Department officials said that work begins in about four months. They plan to deploy the new software to six new sites this year, while also implementing new training protocols, support services and system fixes. Dr. Neil Evans, acting executive director of the health records office, testified that he is confident the project is “moving in the right direction.”

Still, officials couched that the additional deployments will happen, saying that site-by-site assessments still need to take place before any work begins. The department is expected to release a more detailed deployment schedule in coming weeks. And officials also reiterated past public promises not to move ahead if lingering safety and usability concerns are not addressed.

Researchers at the Government Accountability Office said they’ll need to do even more. While some improvements have been implemented, the GAO said surveys have shown that the vast majority of medical staff are pessimistic about how easy to use or effective the new system will be.

“This needs to be addressed before deployments resume,” Carol Harris, director of GAO’s information technology office, told lawmakers. “VA is well aware that its users are unhappy with the system.”

Committee member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. — whose state includes two of the first five deployment sites — questioned whether more money should be put into the system without proof it can work. About $9 billion has already been spent in the effort, but the federal contract for the work in coming years needs to be renewed in May.

Similar comments have been made by House Republicans in recent weeks. Leaders on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee have introduced legislation to block any future software deployments unless certain performance and safety criteria are met. Last week, the panel held a hearing looking at whether taxpayer funds would be better spent upgrading the existing VA health care system, instead of installing a new one.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., expressed frustration over the progress so far and vowed that, “all options are on the table except one: I’m not going to abandon the effort to modernize VA’s records.”

But he also expressed skepticism about restarting work in June without more evidence that past patient safety issues have been addressed.

Future funding of the records project is expected to be a key focus of budget discussions on Capitol Hill over the next few months. The White House has requested $325 billion in funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs in fiscal 2024, which would be the largest in department history.

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.

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