Joint VA/DOD medical site launches new health records system today

by Vern Evans

Employees at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in Illinois on Saturday fully switched over to the new joint military and Veterans Affairs electronic health records system, a milestone that officials hope will help jump-start VA’s stalled adoption of the software.

The deployment makes the North Chicago complex the final Defense Department medical site to begin using the new record system, and the first Veterans Affairs site in 21 months to launch the software. VA officials announced a halt to all new site deployments in April 2023 amid growing concerns about staff training and system readiness.

Whether the deployment to Lovell FHCC would go ahead as scheduled this month was in doubt just a few weeks ago, with lawmakers and advocates questioning whether enough fixes had been made to VA processes to ensure patient safety.

But Neil Evans, acting director of VA’s Electronic Health Record Modernization Integration Office, told reporters this week he is confident that patient safety will be improved — not jeopardized — with the launch of the new records system.

“We believe that it is important for us to operate as an integrated system,” he said. “We want to make sure that we are integrated and functioning as a cohesive whole, and making sure this will work as expected. We’re not concerned about unleashing new issues.”

Since President Donald Trump announced plans to put VA and the Defense Department on the same health records system in 2017, the effort has been fraught with software problems, employee frustrations and patient safety concerns.

After deployment to just five sites, VA Secretary Denis McDonough halted all future installations at veterans medical centers until officials were confident that those issues had been corrected.

Several lawmakers have openly questioned whether VA’s $16 billion contract with Oracle Cerner will ever produce a workable system for the department. But McDonough and Oracle officials have insisted the problems can be fixed, given time and focus on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department’s version of the software — MHS Genesis — has largely been installed with only minor technical setbacks. In a statement, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Lester Martinez-Lopez said deployment of the system to Lovell FHCC “will help DOD and VA deliver on the promise made to those who serve our country to provide seamless care from their first day of active service to the transition to veteran status.”

The Illinois medical center is a joint VA and Defense Department facility which provides care to about 75,000 veterans, service members and family members annually. It is the only joint health care complex of its kind in the nation.

Evans said bringing all of those patients into a single records system will help with coordinating care and provide important insights for VA’s future software deployments.

But in the short term, the move will leave some VA patients in the North Chicago region who use multiple health care sites with two sets of medical records: one in the new Millennium software, and one in VA’s legacy VistA platform.

Those double records have led to problems in the past, particularly with fulfilling pharmacy orders. Evans said officials have made adjustments in recent months and will be closely monitoring the issue going forward.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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