American Legion National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division Director Louis Celli testifies before the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on March 7. By Johnathon Clinkscales/The American Legion

Legion provides position on House legislation

American Legion National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division Director Louis Celli testified at a House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on March 7 to give the Legion’s positions on pending and draft House Resolution (H.R.) bills.

H.R. 3497: Modernization of Medical Records Access for Veterans Act of 2017

According to Celli’s written statement, The American Legion has long endorsed and supported the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in creating a lifetime Electronic Health Records (EHR) system. The Legion has also encouraged both the Department of Defense (DoD) and the VA to either use the same EHR system or, at the very least, use systems that were interoperable.

Celli said the Legion was disappointed when the VA and DoD decided to go in different directions. In 2015, DoD announced that Cerner was awarded a coveted $4.3 billion, 10-year contract to overhaul the Pentagon’s electronic health records for millions of active military members and retirees. However, around the same time, the VA announced it would maintain and modernize VistA.

Last June, VA Secretary David Shulkin announced that the VA would adopt the same Cerner HER system as DoD. Celli said the impending contract, which the VA is in the final stages of negotiating, will set the standard for record transferability and standardization in America.

This new national standard, according to Celli, will increase patient access, decrease wait times and enhance good medicine for all Americans, not just veterans.

“The American Legion is unable to support H.R. 3497 not because we believe that the goal of this bill is off base, but because we believe that this and so much more are already incorporated into the pending EHR contract that the department is getting ready to memorialize with the Cerner Corporation,” Celli said. “The VA and DoD are setting the stage for governmental interoperability that is poised to eventually become the national standard.”

Celli said Congress should refrain from advancing any recommendations or legislation that does not directly support implementation of the VA EHR modernization effort currently being negotiated.

While The American Legion doesn't support H.R. 3497, Celli said the Legion understands and applauds Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who sponsored the bill, desire to aid veterans all while placing their medical care into the 21st century.

“We, the veteran community and this committee are at a critical juncture in time,” Celli said. “Now is not the time to be silent and just hope that it all works out OK. Now is the time to step up. Now is the time to be heard. And now is the time to join (Shulkin) and be a part of this historic change as the VA sets the stage for the largest modernization and medical coordination in American history.”

H.R. 4245: Veterans’ Electronic Health Record Modernization Oversight Act of 2017

H.R. 4245 directs the VA to provide Congress with its key planning and implementation documents for the EHR replacement project. This legislation also requires the department to quickly notify Congress in the event of any significant cost increase, schedule delay, loss of veteran health data or breach of privacy.

In addition to supporting the VA and DoD’s establishment of a joint Virtual Lifetime Electronic Health Record, Celli said the Legion also supports the congressional oversight and funding necessary to ensure that this important and massive information technology transformation is completed as seamlessly as possible.

The American Legion supports H.R. 4245. “Almost everything VA does from this point forward will affect and be affected by this platform,” Celli said. “This is the direction that this committee has directed the VA to take – it is long overdue. This is the direction that The American Legion champions and this is the project that VA Secretary Shulkin has lead and is leading through to completion.”

Draft bill regarding purchase card misuse

Celli said The American Legion is unable to support the purchase card draft legislation that directs the VA secretary to prohibit employees, who are found to have knowingly misused purchase cards, from serving as purchase card holders or approving officials.

“We expect the department to enforce and follow the statute and policies that are currently in place when employees misuse their authority and knowingly put taxpayer dollars at risk,” Celli said. “We fully expect the VA to make management decisions and use their staff in a manner that is in keeping with prudent and judicious behavior.

“And when that behavior breaks down, we look to the VA to use the authority this Congress has already given the secretary to hold employees and managers accountable.”

Moreover, Celli said the Legion is concerned that the bill would limit an employee from performing their assigned duties, which may result in additional and unidentified personnel actions. The Legion is not convinced that this legislation is necessary as VA officials already have the authority to discipline employees who fail to follow department policies.

Draft bill concerning the Medical Surgical Prime Vendor (MSPV) program

When it comes to carrying out the MSPV program using multiple prime vendors, the Legion supports a draft bill that will assist the VA and ensure prime vendor contracts go toward veteran-owned firms.

Although utilizing a singular vendor is easier to deal with, Celli said this procurement shortcut undermines the competitive system. It can also result in the VA overpaying for equipment or not being able to obtain quality material that is necessary to supply such a large medical network.

“The VA serves veterans and veterans should be given first right of refusal when serving their community; provided the services are of the same or greater quality and the price is competitive,” he said. “This theme guides all of The American Legion’s policy recommendations regarding VA contracting programs.”

For Celli, he said allowing the VA to essentially encourage a monopoly on medical supplies and equipment is not only wrong, but could also decrease participation among Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Businesses while overspending taxpayer funding and potentially harming the quality care that veterans receive.

The American Legion opposes the VA switching to a system that allows them to simply use one vendor and urges Congress to force the department to allow for competitive bidding. The Legion supports the draft bill as currently written.

“From here on out, this committee, as well as the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs and the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, are going to have to work together to ensure that uniformed American servicemembers and their families are provided with a safe and effective transition from DoD to post-service medical care,” Celli said. “We need to make sure that their access to care at VA, and in the community, is all coordinated.”