The Department of Veterans Affairs signed a 10-year, $10 billion contract with Cerner Corp. Thursday aimed at giving the department, for the first time, electronic health care records (EHR) that would mesh seamlessly and securely with those of the Department of Defense and the private sector.
In a statement, acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, said the contract would "modernize the VA's health care IT system and help provide seamless care to veterans as they transition from military service to veteran status, and when they choose to use community care."
"This is one of the largest IT contracts in the federal government, with a ceiling of $10 billion over 10 years," Wilkie said, "and with this contract, VA will adopt the same EHR platform as the Department of Defense."
He said that President Donald Trump "has made very clear to me that he wants this contract to do right by both Veterans and taxpayers, and I can say now without a doubt that it does."
For years, DoD and the VA have struggled to come up with a system for the smooth transition of records amid ongoing complaints from troops and veterans about lost or incorrect forms that delayed their care and benefits.
The contract with Cerner Corp. of Kansas City, Missouri, was approved last year under then-VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, but the final signing was delayed in the turmoil over Shulkin's firing in March and concerns over Cerner's ability to take on the job.
"And with a contract of that size, you can understand why former Secretary Shulkin and I took some extra time to do our due diligence and make sure the contract does what the president wanted," Wilkie said.
In response to the signing, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the transition to EHR "should be done right, not fast, and I'm pleased the department took extra time to review the contract before moving forward. Oversight of implementation and spending will be critical as this process continues."
"For too long, service members transitioning from the Department of Defense to VA healthcare have been unable to take their medical records with them," said Rep. Tim Walz, ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, but he also had reservations about Cerner's ability to carry out what the contract required.
The award of the contract came a day after Wilkie defended acting VA Chief Information Officer (CIO) Camilo Sandoval against charges from House and Senate Democrats that he was unfit to oversee the department's to switch to EHR.
In a statement Wednesday, Wilkie called Sandoval an "important member" of the leadership team at the VA but said he was only holding the CIO's position temporarily.
Sandoval "has extensive experience in financial technology and digital mobile payments," Wilkie said. "Along with his close working relationship with the White House, this makes him well suited to oversee VA's IT infrastructure while the White House vets a permanent candidate for the position.".
The statement from Wilkie, who was personnel chief at the Pentagon before coming to the VA after vid Shulkin's exit, was in response to a letter to the VA from 11 House and Senate Democrats questioning Sandoval's fitness to hold the top technology post.
The Democrats said "there are serious character concerns that should disqualify" Sandoval from working at the VA. They cited a pending lawsuit against Sandoval on charges of harassment but their main complaint involved his work as director of Data Operations in 2016 for the Trump campaign.
Sandoval was the data chief "while the Trump campaign was contracting with Cambridge Analytica," a British firm which allegedly collected personal information on more than 80 million Americans, much of it from Facebook.
"Cambridge Analytica's misuse of personal information from tens of millions of Americans, including veterans, was an incredible breach of trust," the Democrats said. "As such, Sandoval's role in these activities must be thoroughly examined and he should be put nowhere near veterans' health and benefits data."
Cambridge Analytica's work for the Trump campaign was the subject of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, and the firm was also being investigated by the Justice Department and the FBI, the New York Times reported.
The 11 Democrats who signed the letter to VA Deputy Director Tom Bowman included Rep. Walz, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The letter added fuel to the controversy over political appointees at the VA and in the White House. Major veterans service organizations have accused them of promoting a campaign to "privatize" VA health care.
Before he stepped down at VA, Shulkin charged that his efforts to reform the VA were being "subverted" by the political appointees.
In December, an email surfaced from Jake Leinenkugel, a White House political appointee on veterans issues, to Sandoval. In the email, Leinenkugel said he favored replacing Shulkin with a more politically-attuned Secretary who would rapidly expand private health care for veterans.
Leinenkugel said Shulkin should be "put on notice to exit" and he also targeted Deputy Director Bowman, who he said "doesn't trust the current slate of political staff."
The letter from the Democrats came on the same day that the House passed major legislation that would expand private care options for veterans and lift the restrictions on the family caregivers program for disabled veterans, which is now limited to post-9/11 veterans.
The bill has bipartisan support in the Senate, and President Donald Trump has said he will sign it quickly once it reaches his desk.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.