The COVID-19 pandemic is taking its toll on an unlikely mark: the Department of Veterans Affairs' new electronic health record system.
VA officials told congressional leaders last month that the system's initial rollout, already delayed once this year, will be suspended indefinitely during the pandemic to let health care professionals focus on patient care.
According to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, work will continue behind the scenes on the $16 billion project, but the department won't burden staff members with a new system during the national emergency.
"Our priority is the care of veterans and providing surge capabilities for civilian health care systems. Our clinical personnel and medical resources are focused on caring for veterans and addressing the current pandemic," Wilkie wrote in an April 3 letter to legislators who oversee VA policy and appropriations.
In February, the VA announced a delay in initial deployment of the system, created by Cerner Corp., scheduled for March at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington. Officials said the wait was necessary to make sure the system works within the VA's information technology framework and employees were trained to use it.
Wilkie told lawmakers that the system is at "99% completion" at Mann-Grandstaff, with the core software and clinician training nearly complete, as well as nearly all the elements needed for the system to go live.
He added that work will continue on the system's clinician training program, as well as testing of interfaces during the pandemic. The VA-Department of Defense Joint Health Information Exchange system also is on track for activation this spring, he added.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said he supports the decision, calling the pandemic a "clear reason to postpone" given the need to have staff focused on the "fight against coronavirus."
"But as this emergency passes," he warned, "We must make sure that VA does not lose sight of the need for strong employee engagement. Failure to communicate with these employees was a significant factor that contributed to the initial implementation delay."
In late April, the VA Office of Inspector General issued a damning report saying delays and failures in overseeing development of the project as well as staff training could have put patients at risk.
The safety concerns stemmed from what appeared to be poor preparation for the switch from the current system to the new one at Spokane.
Lawmakers have largely been supportive of the VA's decisions to move cautiously in developing and implementing the new system. Following February's announcement, Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, the highest ranking Republican on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the VA recognized that "more training and preparation is needed and [it is] taking the time to get this right."
The week Wilkie sent his letter to legislators, the DoD announced that it would also delay the next phase of its electronic health records system initiative due to COVID-19.
It already is using the Cerner-built system, which it calls MHS Genesis, at select military health facilities in the Pacific Northwest, California and Idaho.
The DoD had planned to introduce the system at seven more sites in June 2020.