Veterans Affairs officials on Tuesday announced an extension of their contract with Oracle Cerner to continue their embattled electronic health records overhaul, promising that new safeguards in the agreement will improve the existing software system’s performance.

The deal means five more years of partnership between the department and the digital information firm, both of which have come under scrutiny for work so far on the $16 billion project. Only a few sites are using the new records system, despite five years of effort so far, and future rollouts have been postponed indefinitely until key improvements are made.

Glitches in the system have produced more than 150 cases of veterans suffering harm from medical record mistakes and shortfalls. Administrators reported last fall that the system failed to deliver more than 11,000 orders for specialty care, lab work and other services, all without alerting health care providers the orders had been lost.

Neil Evans, acting program executive director of VA’s health records project, acknowledged in a statement that “the system has not delivered for veterans or VA clinicians to date, but we are stopping at nothing to get this right.”

The contract announcement does not change the full halt on new deployments announced by the department last month. VA officials have said that they will not schedule any more system deployments “until VA is confident that the new [record system] is highly functioning at current sites and ready to deliver for veterans and VA clinicians.”

Getting military and veterans health records onto the same system has been a goal of federal administrators for decades. The Pentagon had some issues implementing the Oracle Cerner software but not as many setbacks as the VA.

The new agreement — five one-year contracts, to allow annual performance reviews of Oracle Cerner’s work — includes new accountability measures such as financial penalties for system down time and regular reporting of software shortfalls.

In a joint statement, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., and Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., who leads the committee’s technology panel, said they remain skeptical that the new agreement will produce better results.

“The main questions we have about what will be different going forward remain unanswered,” they said. “This shorter-term contract is an encouraging first step, but veterans and taxpayers need more than a wink and a nod that the project will improve.”

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester was more optimistic following the news but added that “this is just the start of what’s needed to get this program working in a way deserving of our veterans and taxpayers.”

Oracle Cerner officials told House lawmakers during a May 9 hearing that they support the pause in rollouts and are committed to fixing the system problems in coming years. With the contract negotiations complete, that work will begin again at the five sites currently using the new records system.

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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