VA issues stop-work order on crucial element of e-health record system

Monday - 2/27/2012, 5:07am EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has issued a stop-work order on a key component of the integrated electronic health record system it is developing with the Defense Department.

Virginia-based ASM Research was awarded the contract to build a central hub that would let the agencies incorporate private-sector products more easily into the combined system.

VA assistant secretary for information and technology and chief information officer Roger Baker called it the "heart" of the integrated electronic health record (iEHR) system.

When asked about the stop-work order during a call with reporters, Baker said he did not know of the project's status. A spokesperson later confirmed that the agency had issued the order, but would not offer more details.

ASM Research did not respond to requests for comment.

It's not clear how big of a blow the order will be to the integration of the two agencies' systems. They have made it a priority to create a unified system in which a service member can have one electronic record throughout their career and beyond.

Roger Baker, assistant secretary for information and technology and chief information officer, VA

"It's a huge strategic decision for the VA and the DoD," Baker said of awarding the contract during his monthly conference call with reporters. "It's the first major acquisition that we went out and did together to establish a standard piece of the iEHR."

VA awarded ASM Research a $102.6 million contract in January to develop the enterprise service bus.

The agencies are going ahead with other parts of the project, Baker said. VA is moving its patients' data into data centers run by the Defense Information Systems Agency. In addition, VA is requesting a 7 percent increase in its IT budget for fiscal 2013. Much of that money would go to integrating the electronic health records with the military.

The agencies must spend money on maintaining their separate legacy systems, but Baker said they were looking at ways to integrate components.

"We've taken our work on the legacy system that is common with the new system, for example pharmacy work, and we've put the legacy program inside of the iEHR to make certain that they're working together, the new and the old," he said.

Program managers will try to "harvest money" out of the legacy systems that can be spent on the new development, he said.

Meanwhile, VA is testing how to use technology to better integrate other parts of its mission.

For example, Baker said, he is debating weaning the VA off of the Microsoft Office products on which it relies heavily. The agency is rethinking the way it licenses software and has issued a request for proposals.

It also plans to pilot alternatives to Microsoft Office and Outlook in the cloud, which would include email, instant messaging and audio conferencing. In a recent request for information, the agency says the pilots will help officials study security, interoperability and other issues.

"Our job is to make certain we're making the most out of every dollar we spend," he said. "We look at what organizations like GSA and IRS have done and from a cost standpoint, it's very attractive."

But the VA is much bigger than those agencies and could encounter hiccups in productivity with a major overhaul.

"We have to balance that with the prime mission, which is making certain that our health and benefits folks can continue to do their jobs productively every day," he said.

But Baker has less hesitation about endorsing other IT offerings that could increase productivity. As long as VA can offer the support and security required, he foresees 100,000 health care workers using mobile apps soon.

"If every doctor at the VA, because they have a mobile device, could see one more patient a day, if we could create that much more time in their day, the impact of that on veterans' health care would be substantial," he said. "That's what we're aiming at."

VA is analyzing which apps could make the biggest impact. A pilot project at a Washington-area hospital to put electronic health records on iPads has gone well, he said.

And he added, an app that helps veterans with PTSD has "exceeded my wildest dreams of what a consumer app from the government would be able to do because it's based on medical evidence and it's tremendously popular among those returning service members with PTSD."

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