Update: Dems blast VA on EHR modernization progress, acting CIO controversy

In the last four months, the agency has lost about 40 senior staffers and the lack of experienced IT leadership puts the EHR modernization project at risk, 11 Congressional members argue.
By Jessica Davis
02:36 PM
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Veterans Affairs EHR modernization project

A group of House and Senate Democrats are calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to remove its Acting CIO over controversies that stem from his role on the Trump campaign, while expressing concerns about some in the President’s inner circle who may be “inappropriately influencing EHR modernization.”

The letter, sent by 11 lawmakers include Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-New York, and Tim Walz, D-Nebraska, blasts the VA for its “malign neglect” for failing to obtain qualified leadership and “reports of political interference hindering EHR implementation.”

After Acting CIO Scott Blackburn resigned in April, Trump named Camilo Sandoval to the position. Sandoval, a former Trump campaign staffer, is surrounded by a growing list of controversies.

Among the concerns addressed in the letter is Sandoval’s previous position as Director of Data Operations in 2016. During that time, the Trump campaign contracted with Cambridge Analytica, the company currently under fire for mining Facebook user data.

“Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of personal information from tens of millions of Americans, including veterans, was an incredible breach of trust,” the letter authors wrote. “As such, Sandoval’s role in these activities must be thoroughly examined.”

“He should be put nowhere near veterans’ health and benefits data,” they added.

The letter also noted Sandoval is currently the subject of a $25 million lawsuit that claims he slandered, harassed and sexually discriminated against a campaign colleague. All of these items “raise serious red flags and indicate a history of interpersonal conflicts with coworkers.”

As a result, the VA should remove him from the position, the Congressional members wrote.

But Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie defended the choice of Sandoval, saying his "extensive experience in financial technology and digital mobile payments" make him "well-suited" to oversee the VA's IT infrastructure.

“Senior VA officials are now on the same page, speaking with one voice to Veterans, employees and outside stakeholders, such as Congress and veterans service organizations, and Camilo is an important member of this leadership team,” Wilkie said in a statement to Healthcare IT News.

But Sandoval is just one of many senior staffing issues concerning the Congressional members. There are more than 33,000 vacancies within the agency, including 553 in the Office of Information Technology. And about 40 senior staffers have stepped down in the last four months alone.

These vacancies are adding to concerns about the EHR modernization project.

“Current VA employees…are forced to shoulder the work of former colleagues -- contributing to low morale among the VA workforce,” the letter authors wrote. “The historic overhaul of the VA’s outdated [EHR] requires adequate staffing levels to ensure this project succeeds.”

Given that the Department of Defense’s project is facing its own serious challenges, the need for a VA leader who understands the “risks and requirements” of the project is crucial, they continued. “The need for VA’s EHR modernization cannot be overstated.”

Also notable is that the letter is addressed to Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman instead of Acting Secretary Robert Wilkie. Some have called into question Wilkie’s authority in that role, given Trump sidestepped appointing Bowman as secretary after ousting VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD. In fact, two veterans’ groups have sued to have Wilkie removed.

Despite this opposition, Wilkie has continued to forge ahead with plans to decide on the EHR modernization by May 28.

This story was updated to include the Acting VA Secretary's response to the Congressional letter.

Twitter: @JessieFDavis
Email the writer: jessica.davis@himssmedia.com