Members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are turning up the heat on the Department of Veterans Affairs for what lawmakers describe as “malign neglect” regarding the VA’s electronic health record modernization efforts.
Five senators and six members of Congress—all Democrats—sent a letter on Wednesday to VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman expressing their concerns about what they perceive as a leadership vacuum at the agency, significant staffing vacancies, as well as reports of “political interference” regarding the VA’s plans to purchase a commercial-off-the-shelf EHR from Cerner to replace its legacy system.
In particular, lawmakers questioned the appointment of Camilo Sandoval—the former director of data operations for the Trump campaign—as acting chief information officer at VA.
Last month, VA acting CIO Scott Blackburn, who was overseeing the EHR modernization, resigned from the agency and was replaced by Sandoval. But, the senators and congressmen contend that Sandoval “should be put nowhere near veterans’ health and benefits data” in light of his connection to the Cambridge Analytica scandal involving the “misuse of personal information from tens of millions of Americans.”
In addition, the lawmakers’ letter cites a $25 million lawsuit against Sandoval in which it is claimed that he “slandered, harassed and sexually discriminated against (a campaign employee).” They also charge that Sandoval’s previous employment at the Department of Treasury and Veterans Health Administration “indicate a history of rampant interpersonal conflicts with co-workers.”
As a result, the lawmakers demanded that Sandoval “be removed from his temporary position as CIO and replaced with a first-class leader who is capable of implementing the VA’s EHR modernization and fulfilling the VA’s obligation to our nation’s heroes.”
The senators and congressmen also note that the VA Office of Information Technology has 553 staffing vacancies that are negatively impacting the agency’s EHR modernization efforts.
“In the last four months alone, 40 senior staffers have resigned, effectively stalling operations in essential areas such as information technology,” states the letter. “The historic overhaul of the VA’s outdated health record system requires adequate staffing levels to ensure this project succeeds. Anything less than a robust workforce is a disservice to veterans, VA employees and taxpayers.”
Lawmakers also accused President Trump’s inner circle of inappropriately trying to influence the VA’s EHR modernization efforts.
“The President is taking advice from his personal friend and member of his Mar-a-Lago circle, Dr. Bruce Moskowitz,” according to the congressional letter. “As an internist with no government experience, Dr. Moskowitz lacks the expertise to provide the Administration with insight to address the challenges of developing an interoperable system” with the Department of Defense.
The senators and members of Congress requested that Deputy Secretary Bowman provide them with an update on the status of the agency’s EHR modernization efforts and “information on all contact with Dr. Moskowitz or any other individual who has provided input” outside of the VA.
Jon Rychalski, assistant secretary for management and chief financial officer at the VA, told a Senate subcommittee last week that Robert Wilkie, the VA’s acting secretary will make an acquisition decision by May 28—Memorial Day—regarding the agency’ plans to purchase an EHR from Cerner. The VA has been trying for nearly a year to negotiate a $10 billion contract with Cerner, which has yet to be signed by the two parties.
According to the latest VA data provided to Congress, the total cost to implement the new EHR system over 10 years will be $15.8 billion—$10 billion for the Cerner contract, $4.6 billion for infrastructure improvements, as well as $1.2 billion for contractor program management support services.
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