- Telehealth is top of mind for the Department of Veterans Affairs this month. The country's second-largest government agency kicked off a new partnership with Walmart last week wherein it will lead telehealth services at targeted locations of the big-box retailer with the overarching goal of reaching underserved veterans.
- The agency, which has seen its share of health IT woes since the dawn of EHRs, also announced last week a deal with Standard Communications and Spok Health to expand the latter's secure, encrypted messaging service to more VA facilities.
- While both are signs of progress for a government agency that only recently switched from paper documentation to digital, all eyes are on its high-profile EHR modernization project, a controversy-riddled, $16.1 billion no-bid contract awarded to Cerner and expected to conclude in March 2020.
Cerner snafus aside, the VA has been on the ball with telehealth in recent months. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that the agency has been in talks with Apple on a deal that would see the tech giant build software for veterans to access their EHRs via their mobile devices.
The VA says it is leading the nation in telemedicine with 900,000 visits last year. This summer, the agency finalized telehealth rules that will allow its providers to practice across state lines via virtual technology. The agency hopes its investments in HIT and its corresponding regulatory moves will allow it to better reach underserved veterans, particularly in rural areas.
A 2016 RAND report found that veterans who rely on VA care most tend to be younger, poorer and live in rural areas where they lack healthcare from other sources. Only 25% of veterans live within an hour of a VA medical facility, according to that report, and access to specialized services is even slimmer.
The agency is making progress on its long-term IT goals despite over a year of leadership changes and controversy with its increasingly expensive EHR implementation.
Cerner ran headfirst into interoperability issues soon after signing the contract in June 2017 for what was then an estimated $10 billion. That contract was re-estimated at $16.1 billion once the VA remembered to account for staffing.
According to ProPublica, Cerner recently rated its EHR project with the VA "yellow trending towards red."
At a recent House committee hearing, Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind. was blunt in expressing his feelings about the delayed project, saying he sees "every indication" that matters will only continue to get worse. "Frankly," Banks said, "the more I learn about the EHR program, the more daunting it has become."