Senators call for VA to tighten performance standards in new health records contract

Three Democratic senators are pressing the Department of Veterans Affairs to prioritize stronger accountability standards as it negotiates a new one-year contract with Oracle Cerner to deliver its electronic health record system. 

In a May 6 letter to VA that was released on Friday, Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio — all members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee — called for the department “to use the opportunity the new contract structure provides to re-review terms and add additional accountability and oversight provisions to protect veterans and taxpayers.”

VA signed a five-year contract with Cerner in 2018 to modernize its legacy health record system, but that effort has been stalled by cost overruns, technical challenges and patient safety concerns. The department announced a pause on additional rollouts of the software last April as part of a “program reset” to address issues at the sites using the new system. The new EHR system has been deployed at six VA medical facilities

Oracle acquired Cerner in 2022, and the lawmakers noted in their letter that the company “committed to putting significant additional IT engineers and other relevant personnel and financial resources on this project to get it back on track.”

Continued issues with the EHR system, however, led to VA extending its contract with Oracle last May for one-year but instituting new performance measures in the reworked agreement. The current contract is set to expire on May 16.

Tester, who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has pressed for additional oversight of Oracle Cerner’s rollout of the new EHR system but told Nextgov/FCW last year that modernizing the department’s legacy system “is not optional.”

Murray, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has also been critical of VA’s EHR rollout. Murray called on VA last month to address workflow issues and software glitches that were still occurring at two VA medical facilities in her state that are using the new software. 

“While there have been some improvements to Oracle Health’s performance in the last 12 months, significant challenges remain,” the senators wrote, noting that Oracle Cerner’s February release of new software “was incomplete due to the need to pull back and fix several pharmacy-focused upgrades that had code errors.”

A VA official told lawmakers in February that roughly 250,000 veterans who visited both VA medical facilities using the new EHR software and those still using the department’s legacy system were at risk of receiving contraindicated medications because of interoperability issues between the two systems.

Subsequent reports released by VA’s Office of Inspector General in March warned that veterans had “not been notified of their risk of harm” from the pharmacy software issues and also found that scheduling errors with the EHR system had contributed to a veteran’s death. 

“After years of veterans not receiving the care they deserve and VA staff not getting the system they need, the department must take all steps possible to ensure VA is getting the services it purchased at a fair price and that Oracle Health is living up to its commitments,” the senators wrote.

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