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Electronic Health Records: VA's Efforts Raise Concerns about Interoperability Goals and Measures, Duplication with DOD, and Future Plans

GAO-16-807T Published: Jul 13, 2016. Publicly Released: Jul 13, 2016.
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What GAO Found

Even as the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has undertaken numerous initiatives with the Department of Defense (DOD) that were intended to advance the ability of the two departments to share electronic health records, the departments have not identified outcome-oriented goals and metrics to clearly define what they aim to achieve from their interoperability efforts. In an August 2015 report, GAO recommended that the two departments establish a time frame for identifying outcome-oriented metrics, define related goals as a basis for determining the extent to which the departments' systems are achieving interoperability, and update their guidance accordingly. Since that time, VA has established a performance architecture program that has begun to define an approach for identifying outcome-oriented metrics focused on health outcomes in selected clinical areas and has begun to establish baseline measurements. GAO is continuing to monitor VA's and DOD's efforts to define metrics and report on the interoperability results achieved between the departments.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to develop a joint system with DOD, VA switched tactics and moved forward with an effort to modernize its current system separately from DOD's planned acquisition of a commercially available electronic health record system. The department took this course of action even though, in May 2010, it identified 10 areas of health care business needs in common with those of DOD. Further, the results of a 2008 study pointed out that more than 97 percent of inpatient requirements for electronic health record systems are common to both departments. GAO noted that the departments' plans to separately modernize their systems were duplicative and recommended that their decisions should be justified by comparing the costs and schedules of alternate approaches. The departments agreed with GAO's recommendations and stated that their initial comparison indicated that separate systems would be more cost effective. However, the departments have not provided a comparison of the estimated costs of their current and previous approaches. Further, both departments developed schedules that indicated their separate modernization efforts will not be completed until after the 2017 planned completion date for the previous joint system approach.

VA has developed a number of plans to support its development of its electronic health record system, called VistA, including a plan for interoperability and a road map describing functional capabilities to be deployed through fiscal year 2018. According to the road map, the first set of capabilities was delivered by the end of September 2014 and included a foundation for future functionality, such as an enhanced graphical user interface and enterprise messaging infrastructure. However, a recent independent assessment of health information technology (IT) at VA reported that lengthy delays in modernizing VistA had resulted in the system becoming outdated. Further, this study questioned whether the modernization program can overcome a variety of risks and technical issues that have plagued prior VA initiatives of similar size and complexity. Although VA's Under Secretary for Health has asserted that the department will complete the VistA Evolution program in fiscal year 2018, the Chief Information Officer has indicated that the department is reconsidering how best to meet its future electronic health record system needs.

Why GAO Did This Study

VA operates one of the nation's largest health care systems, serving millions of veterans each year. For almost two decades, the department has undertaken a patchwork of initiatives with DOD to increase interoperability between their respective electronic health record systems. During much of this time, VA has also been planning to modernize its system. While the department has made progress in these efforts, it has also faced significant information technology challenges that contributed to GAO's designation of VA health care as a high risk area.

This statement summarizes GAO's August 2015 report (GAO-15-530) on VA's efforts to achieve interoperability with DOD's electronic health records system. It also summarizes key content from GAO's reports on duplication, overlap, and fragmentation of federal government programs. Lastly, this statement provides updated information on VA's actions in response to GAO's recommendation calling for an interoperability and electronic health record system plan.


In prior reports, GAO has made numerous recommendations to VA to improve the modernization of its IT systems. Among other things, GAO has recommended that VA address challenges associated with interoperability, develop goals and metrics to determine the extent to which the modernized systems are achieving interoperability, and address shortcomings with planning. VA generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.

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