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Congressional Democrats said they felt blindsided by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA’s) decision this week to push off its go-live date for a new $16 billion medical records system.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Technology Modernization plans to hold a hearing in the next few weeks to scrutinize the VA’s decision to delay the platform’s rollout, Susie Lee, D-Nevada, chairwoman of the subcommittee, announced.

The VA had planned to flip the switch on the new electronic health record (EHR) at its first site—Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington—on March 28. But the VA announced this week it’s delaying plans to commence end-user training, which may impact “going live” with its EHR in March in Washington.

Case Study

Across-the-Board Impact of an OB-GYN Hospitalist Program

A Denver facility saw across-the-board improvements in patient satisfaction, maternal quality metrics, decreased subsidy and increased service volume, thanks to the rollout of the first OB-GYN hospitalist program in the state.

See how

“After rigorous testing of our new EHR, the department will need more time to complete the system build and ensure clinicians and other users are properly trained on it,” VA spokesperson Christina Mandreucci told FierceHealthcare in an emailed statement.

“We believe we are 75-80% complete in this regard and will be announcing a revised ‘go-live’ schedule in the coming weeks,” she said.

Lee said during a hearing on VA’s data privacy policies Wednesday that the VA needs to be “forthright about its progress, identify concerns, and notify Congress about any challenges.”

“I’ve long said that getting it right is far more important than hitting a date on a calendar. If there needs to be a delay to get the system to a place where veterans’ lives are not at risk and VA staff are ready to use it, that’s the right thing to do,” she said.

She added, “However, I’m concerned that as we have moved closer to the go-live date, we were told repeatedly there were no show-stoppers in implementation, that testing was going great, and that things were on track.”

Politico reported that the committee’s staff said the VA had not mentioned the possibility of delay in recent meetings. When the department informed Lee of the decision, VA officials employed inconsistent explanations, committee staff told Politico.

Lee acknowledged that software development and testing conditions can change rapidly, but the committee requires “transparency and for the VA to be accountable for its actions.” 

She also noted that President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would “speed up” the EHR project rollout.

The VA signed a $10 billion deal with Cerner in May 2018 to move from the VA’s customized VistA platform to an off-the-shelf EHR to align the country’s largest health system with the Department of Defense, which has already started integrating Cerner’s MHS Genesis system.

For the VA, the Cerner EHR will replace the approximately 130 operational instances of VistA currently in use across the department. While the initial EHR contract signed with Cerner was for $10 billion, the VA has pushed the estimated 10-year cost for implementing the system past $16 billion.

The VA’s delay comes a week after a key VA EHR project leader, former VA Deputy Secretary James Byrne, was abruptly dismissed. In his five months at the agency, Byrne was a key leader updating members of Congress on the progress and challenges of the implementation.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want more answers on why the department pushed off its go-live date for the multibillion dollar medical records system.

Rep. Jim Banks, R-Indiana, ranking member of the committee, said during the hearing that he supported VA Secretary Robert Wilkie’s decision to delay the EHR launch but was disappointed that no VA officials in charge of the EHR project attended Wednesday’s hearing, as lawmakers had requested.

Rep. Phil Roe, M.D., R-Tennessee, the ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and a member of the subcommittee, said VA’s decision to delay the project highlighted the need for lawmakers to ramp up oversight of the project.

Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement that, “VA must establish stable leadership to provide sufficient accountability and robust oversight of this process.”

Mark Takano, D-California, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Technology Modernization, said he supported VA leadership taking the time they need to get the $16 billion dollar implementation right, but leaders need to be transparent with Congress.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Paul Cunningham, the VA’s deputy assistant secretary and chief information security officer, testified that he was made aware of the EHR project delay on Tuesday.

The delay was more a “tactical decision” than a result of a lack of resources, he said, while acknowledging that the project was “outside his purview.”

Federal lawmakers are taking a hard look at how the VA protects patient data shared with VA-approved health apps.

As more health data is shared with technology companies and mobile apps, it raises concerns about potential privacy and security risks for veterans, according to federal lawmakers charged with oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ IT modernization efforts.

The VA’s App Store includes close to 50 smartphone apps designed to help veterans manage their healthcare.

Case Study

Across-the-Board Impact of an OB-GYN Hospitalist Program

A Denver facility saw across-the-board improvements in patient satisfaction, maternal quality metrics, decreased subsidy and increased service volume, thanks to the rollout of the first OB-GYN hospitalist program in the state.

See how

Many of these apps required “significant elevated permissions” and request access to a user’s contacts, calendars, photos, and other files, and that raises questions around privacy, said Susie Lee, D-Nevada, chairwoman of House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Technology Modernization during an oversight hearing Wednesday.

Lee said she’s concerned that smartphone apps could access users’ sensitive health information, such as a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis, that could be shared or sold by third-party companies and lead to workforce discrimination or other negative consequences for veterans.

Ranking Member Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said one VA-recommended app designed to provide support to veterans with PTSD requests permission to access the smartphone user’s contacts and microphone. “That’s disturbing to me. You might inadvertently hit that,” he said.

He added, “I look at a risk-benefit ratio. Is this information shared? Is it accessible? Is it sold?”

Paul Cunningham, the VA’s deputy assistant secretary and chief information security officer (CISO), testified that the department has to make “risk-based decisions” over the value of the app while balancing security and privacy.

“We’re trying to solve this problem around access to data. If we go strictly by compliance and zero tolerance, we miss out on opportunities that technology brings if we’re not able to share information with third parties that are trusted,” he said.

Health systems are grappling with the same issues around app privacy, as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will soon finalize a regulation that will allow patients to download their health data using third-party apps.

The VA is the process of implementing a multi-billion dollar IT modernization project, including a new electronic health record (EHR) system from health IT vendor Cerner. 

The Mission Act also is expanding the number of VA patients seeking treatment from community care providers which requires more data sharing. The VA needs to ensure that privacy and security policies keep pace with new technology, Lee said.

“As we assess the data landscape at the VA and the larger health IT space, we need to look at where protections exist or don’t exist and whether we need more guardrails,” Lee said. 

Cunningham said the VA has policies and practices to ensure that access to veterans’ information is strictly controlled. Apps that connect to an application programming interface (API) from the VA and are part of VA’s App Store must sign a “comprehensive and strict’ user agreement that sets limits to how health data can be used, he said.

The VA’s acceptable use agreement includes a commitment not to sell patient data.

Cunningham told lawmakers that VA does not “police” the networks of third parties, but the department would take “swift action’ to investigate if a breach was discovered.

Like many in the healthcare industry, Cunningham acknowledged that he has concerns about how third-party companies not regulated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) use health data and the potential privacy risks for veterans.

“It’s difficult to make sure that people really understand when they accept an app that they understand the full access they are granting and how that information will be used downstream,” he said.

Privacy policies used by apps can be thousands of words long and many consumers do not read them, Lee noted.

Key lawmakers are considering whether federal laws like HIPAA need to be updated to better protect veterans’ sensitive health information.

Rep. Jim Banks, R-Indiana, ranking member of the committee, wants to see the HIPAA privacy rule updated to prevent health data from being monetized. 

“Today some of the HIPAA-permitted purposes to asses patient records when applied in a new context, could become loopholes,” he said. “The health technology landscape is evolving quickly. Mobile apps already have taken over the software marketplace. In a few years, most health records will be stored in the cloud. Privacy safeguards have to evolve as well.”

Emory Healthcare in Atlanta now has the nation’s first 5G-enabled healthcare lab.

The health system is collaborating with Verizon to develop and test 5G Ultra Wideband-enabled medical use cases at its Emory Healthcare Innovation Hub.

It comes on the heels of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announcement earlier this month that it would launch the first 5G-enabled hospital. The VA’s Palo Alto Health Care System, which is an affiliate of Stanford University School of Medicine, also worked with Verizon to bring 5G technology online.

Case Study

Across-the-Board Impact of an OB-GYN Hospitalist Program

A Denver facility saw across-the-board improvements in patient satisfaction, maternal quality metrics, decreased subsidy and increased service volume, thanks to the rollout of the first OB-GYN hospitalist program in the state.

See how

Emory’s healthcare hub will test how 5G could enhance augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) applications for medical training, enable telemedicine and remote patient monitoring and provide point-of-care diagnostic and imaging systems from the ambulance to the ER. 

With 5G, doctors should be able to perform tasks like creating holographic 3D anatomical renderings that can be studied from every angle and even projected onto the body in the operating room to help guide surgery, said Tami Erwin, CEO of Verizon Business Group.

The 5G network’s larger bandwidth, faster speeds, and ultra-low latency have the potential to help redefine patient care with real-time data analytics, giving researchers the ability to explore solutions such as connected ambulances, remote physical therapy, and next-generation medical imaging, according to Verizon.

Speed to data is critical to the digital evolution of health,” Scott Boden, MD, vice president for business innovation for Emory Healthcare, said in a statement.

“The healthcare industry, driven by value-based care and increased consumerization, is set for a paradigm shift that will put a much greater focus on connectivity and access to data,” Boden said. 

The Emory Healthcare Innovation Hub was set up in 2018 to improve patient care and provider experience by using cutting-edge health technology. The hub came about from a partnership between Emory Healthcare and Sharecare to use a demand-driven innovation approached developed with 11ITEN Innovations Partners to identify technology improvements with a focus on the end-user while having an impact on cost, quality, and patient outcomes.

The innovation hub works with nine strategic partners to focus on precision medicine, genetics, trauma/emergency medicine, orthopedics, obesity, and rural access to care through telehealth.

As part of the collaboration, Verizon will offer network and security services, project management, professional consulting services, and managed infrastructure and sit on the Emory Hub Executive Advisory Board.

Verizon operates five 5G Labs in the U.S. and one 5G Lab in London. The Emory Healthcare Innovation Lab is the first 5G lab Verizon has set up on-premises for a customer, and it will be part of an ongoing initiative to co-develop 5G-related use cases.