Epic Systems Corp. may lose its part of a $642 million government contract to provide its commercial computerized patient-scheduling system to the Veterans Health Administration if home-grown software that's 99% cheaper works.
Some members of Congress, however, question the VHA's decision to put its Epic contract on hold, as well as its ability to develop its own software, in the wake of accusations that officials continue to falsify records on the wait times veterans endure to receive clinical care.
“This seems like deja vu all over again to me,” said Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, (D-N.H.), quoting Yogi Berra.
Kuster is the ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Her remarks came during a hearing Thursday on Veterans Administration health information technology projects.
In 2015, the VHA awarded a 5-year, $624 million contract to Epic and Systems Made Simple, a subsidiary of defense contracting giant, Lockheed Martin, for a project called the Medical Appointment Scheduling System, or MASS.
Under the MASS deal, the VHA would purchase, interface and install Epic's scheduling software products across the agency's 152-hospital, 990-clinic health system.
The huge contract came in the wake of a 2014 scandal in which VA employees falsified records on the wait times veterans experienced before receiving a medical appointment.
Buying a commercial scheduling system seemed like the right thing to do under those circumstances, according to Kuster, especially since the agency's “outdated and cumbersome patient-scheduling system was a major contributor to the patient-scheduling crisis,” she said.
But the VHA now argues that its move to table the commercial contract, and first try a $6.4 million home-grown alternative is “the very, very best decision for veterans and taxpayers.”
Kuster counters that the agency already has spent $27.5 million on a pilot project for MASS.
Previously, she said, the VHA “wasted nine years without an update to its scheduling system,” and eventually implemented one that was “an in-house solution that could not deliver an adequate update.”
“We cannot, and will not, let this happen again,” Kuster said. “And I can say that on a bipartisan basis.” Congress cannot continue to give VHA “a blank check” for IT projects, she added.
Mike Coffman, (R-Colo.), chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee, called the VHA's decision to put the Epic contract on hold “a dramatic about face.” He said he believed the decision meant the agency would stick with government-developed technology “indefinitely.”
But according to Dr. David Shulkin, the VA's under secretary for health, the agency has “not ruled out MASS,” even though a proposed, three-hospital pilot of the commercial system would take 10 months and cost $152 million.
In contrast, the home-grown system “is available right now,” Shulkin said, and is, in fact, being used at VHA facilities in Asheville N.C. and Salt Lake City.
Nine more pilots sites will be added soon, he said.
Shulkin reminded committee members that previous systems have been developed largely in-house, and initially, over the objections of top VHA brass in Washington.
Shulkin last week announced plans to roll out the pilot scheduling system nationwide. That system includes a mobile app that will allow veterans to schedule appointments through their smartphones.
Once the pilot system is rolled out, the agency will evaluate it and “make a decision very, very quickly,” about whether it meets “all the needs for veterans and our employees and taxpayers,” the agency stated.
“And if not, we'll proceed with MASS,” Shulkin said, adding that he was glad to hear other ideas or thoughts.
Shulkin's invitation had no takers.
Epic did not immediately return requests for comment.