VA Secretary Nominee Vows To Address EHR, Scheduling Issues

July 23, 2014 in News

On Tuesday, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee expressed bipartisan support for Robert McDonald’s confirmation for Department of Veterans Affairs secretary but raised concerns about the problems plaguing the agency, including recent evidence of data manipulation to reduce veterans’ wait times, FCW reports (Lyngaas, FCW, 7/22).

The committee is scheduled to formally vote on McDonald’s confirmation on Wednesday (Huetteman, New York Times, 7/22). A full Senate confirmation vote could follow before Congress’ August recess, according to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) (Lawder, Reuters, 7/22).

Background 

In late May, President Obama announced that former VA Secretary Eric Shineski had resigned following an interim report from VA’s Office of Inspector General that found preliminary evidence that the Phoenix VA Health Care System inappropriately used electronic health record systems to facilitate improper scheduling practices, affecting as many as 1,700 patients (iHealthBeat, 5/30). Similar allegations have been made about VA facilities throughout the country, including Colorado and Texas.

In addition, lawmakers on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee during a May hearing cited a memo that showed the agency was aware as early as 2010 that VA health clinics were inappropriately using EHR systems to facilitate improper scheduling practices (iHealthBeat, 5/21).

Hearing Details

During the confirmation hearing for McDonald, lawmakers listed the issues currently plaguing VA and asked McDonald how he aims to address those concerns. Lawmakers said that the department is dealing with:

  • A backlog of claims;
  • A shortage of health care professionals;
  • Fraud;
  • Widespread management issues; and
  • Outdated scheduling technology (Henneberger, Washington Post, 7/22).

McDonald said he would improve performance and modernize technology at VA to make the department into “an organization that delivers on its mission.”

Specifically, he said he would boost accountability within the organization and also make himself personally available to members of the committee should they have continuing concerns. He also said that he would travel to regional VA facilities, speaking to both VA employees and veterans, to improve communication and better understand the issues facing the department.

In addition, McDonald said that he had already met with Department of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and would work with the Pentagon to integrate VA’s electronic health record systems and tackle VA’s outdated scheduling technology (O’Brien, CQ Roll Call, 7/22).

He added that VA “needs to demonstrate … that it can create, with the department of Defense, an integrated records system; that it can regularly and accurately produce key data for decision-makers and oversight entities; and most importantly, provide veterans the highest quality and most cost-effective benefits possible” (FCW, 7/22).

Slow Progress on VA Bill

Meanwhile, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in a statement on Monday said that he and House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) “are working very hard” to reconcile similar bills (S 2450, HR 4810) passed by the House and Senate, AP/San Francisco Chronicle (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 7/21).

He noted that Senate negotiators “have agreed with the House that some [cost] offsets could be included in a final bill.”

However, Miller said that an unanticipated $17 billion funding request from VA last week and other cost differences has made it hard to strike a deal on the measure (French, Politico, 7/21).

A memo sent to Sanders from Gibson summarizes how the VA would allocate its requested funds, including spending $1.2 billion to update the VA’s IT system (Kennedy, USA Today, 7/22).

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