No one really knows how much taxpayers have invested in VistA, which was built at taxpayer expense, starting in 1977. Last year, researchers at the Center for Information Technology Leadership in Boston took a whack at estimating the development costs of just four key VistA components, publishing their findings in the policy journal Health Affairs. The outlay: $4.1 billion. And yet, this valuable resource is largely—although not exclusively—in the public domain. That is, you or I can obtain a copy of VistA, exclusive of a few proprietary modules, for free under the Freedom of Information Act. In fact, I have a copy of an open-source version of VistA loaded onto a CD-ROM in the top drawer of my desk.
Of keen interest regarding the VA's open-source project is: Will the remodeled VistA remain as open as the current VistA is, or will it become more proprietary, subjecting users to an increasing number of software license fees? To look for answers, I've asked the VA to send me a copy of Tiag's winning bid, but some clues can be found in a 72-page document linked to the contract award notice posted June 20 on the FedBizOps website.
The document largely consists of a "performance work statement" outlining the responsibilities of the winning contract bidder.
It says the contractor shall establish the terms of the open source license to be used throughout the project and it must ensure that "(a)ll source code in the code base is available to all members royalty-free."
Debra White, a healthcare attorney with the firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in Washington, graciously gave the work statement a second look. In an e-mail, White said, based on the goals and objectives stated in the VA's guidelines, at least, open-source VistA advocates should "have no fear" that the software might be chipped, bit-by-bit, from the public domain.
"The way I read this," White said, "the intention is clearly that all EHR code that is developed by any party (public or private) and that is ultimately accepted by the CA (custodial agent) for contribution to the codebase would become and remain open -ource and available to members royalty-free."
Still, White said, while the recently awarded contract speaks to "the enhanced openness of VistA," future VA requests for proposals bear watching. "If those RFPs do not sing out of the same (open-source software) hymnal, all of this will be for naught."
Follow Joseph Conn on Twitter: @MHJConn.