Congressional delays cause missed deadline for VA-Cerner contract

As Congress drags its feet, the VA has to wait to sign a multibillion contract for a new electronic health record system.

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The Department of Veterans Affairs is waiting on lawmakers for the OK to sign a multibillion-dollar contract with Cerner for a new electronic heath records system, replacing the agency's aging, homegrown Vista software.

The VA had a self-imposed November deadline to get the deal out the door, according to court documents that were part of a lawsuit opposing the VA's decision to make a sole-source award for a new system, but that deadline will slip because the required funds are not available.

The snag is that VA needs the approval of the House and Senate Appropriations committees to make an initial transfer of $374 million of existing funding between accounts. The VA has made formal requests for the transfer, but so far has not received the go-ahead, according to VA and Capitol Hill sources.

According to a VA official, the contract is finished and can be signed as soon as the money is in the right accounts.

It's not clear what is holding up the approval. Lawmakers are busy with an end-of-year scramble to pass an appropriations package or a continuing resolution to keep the government open past the Dec. 8 funding deadline, not to mention a host of other measures. A VA official told FCW that the decision to award the contract on a sole-source basis to Cerner was not at issue.  

Cerner software undergirds the new Department of Defense MHS Genesis system, which just wrapped up its initial deployment at several sites in the Pacific Northwest. The Cerner system was chosen because of the promise of much improved interoperability between the DOD and VA health systems.

John Windom, the retired Navy captain who is leading VA's acquisition of a new health record system and who performed a similar role in DOD's modernization effort, told a House Appropriations subcommittee earlier this month that the new DOD and VA systems would be "100 percent" interoperable.

"I am willing to say that because we will be on the same Cerner Millenium platform, we will be hosting our data in the same hosted facility. We will communicate seamlessly across the respective DOD and VA environments because of those reasons," Windom said.

VA's deployment plan will follow the DOD's lead  -- with VA hoping to go live with the Cerner system in sites in the Pacific Northwest in proximity to those DOD initially deployed. VA Secretary David Shulkin said that his agency was able to "negotiate substantial savings in efficiencies and timelines because of DOD's experience here," in testimony at the same Nov. 15 hearing of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. He said that delays in signing the contract could put those savings at risk.

A former VA official told FCW that if the agency is able to get the contract signed by the end of 2017, it should be able to preserve the efficiencies gained by tracking DOD's deployment.