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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

New Tester Bill Calls For More VA Oversight

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and a Republican colleague from Tennessee have introduced a billto increase scrutiny of a big private contract for the Veterans Administration. The White House has come under fire for allowing friends of the president to influence who gets it.

The $16 billion contract is for software, a new electronic medical records system for the Veterans Administration nationwide. Upgrading digital health records has been a huge challenge for private hospitals and clinics in the last decade.

"And so, to see it happening on the largest scale ever, given that the VA is the largest health system in the United States is really an unprecedented challenge," says Isaac Arnsdorf, a reporter who covers the VA for ProPublica in New York. He’s been reporting about the unorthodox routethe Trump administration has taken in choosing an electronic medical records vendor for veterans health care.

"President Trump gave a very unusual amount of influence over the VA to a friend of his who’s a member of Mar-a-Lago, who is Ike Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Entertainment," Arnsdorf says. "And Ike Perlmutter brought along a doctor and a lawyer who he knows who became sort of a of shadow leadership for the department, sort of thought of themselves as like a board of directors."

Arnsdorf’s reporting revealed that Perlmutter’s group was calling meetings with VA leadership specifically about electronic health records, a practice he said stopped once it became public.

"It does concern me that people who aren’t appointed, are not confirmed, if in fact they’re having influences on the way tax dollars are spent," says Sen. Jon Tester, "that’s inappropriate."

Last week Tester, a Democrat and a fellow member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committe, Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn, introduced a bill that would set up an independent committee to analyze the VA’s strategy for implementing digital health records.

"It’s a big budget item that’s fairly complex, and I think it’s important that we get veterans and patients and electronic gurus and doctors all in the same room to see if these folks are doing it right and not wasting taxpayer money," Tester says.

The 11-member committee would develop a risk management plan and meet with the VA Secretary at least twice a year to provide their analysis and recommendations for implementation.

So far there’s no indication that the bill to create a committee to oversee electronic health records at the VA will be heard in the Senate. The VA’s goal is to to start piloting its new digital records system in the Pacific Northwest in March of next year.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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