Robert Wilkie, President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA), affirmed that IT modernization and the Electronic Health Records (EHR) Program are among his top priorities during today’s Senate Veterans Affairs Committee nomination hearing.

During the hearing–which was overwhelmingly positive–Wilkie faced questions on the multitude of issues the VA is dealing with, but a major theme was the state of the VA’s EHR rollout.

“For the VA to thrive as an integrated health care network, it must be agile and adaptive,” Wilkie said. “What are the priorities? Improve the culture–offer world class customer service. Improve access to care through implementation of the MISSION Act and transformative IT Modernization such as the Electronic Health Records Program. Reduce the backlog of claims and payments. Business transformation including reform of the human resource systems.”

The VA has been plagued by technology troubles–especially around its new EHR program. Wilkie recognized the issues the VA is facing, and redoubled on the importance of getting the rollout right. He also explained that a successful EHR rollout could serve as a roadmap for future IT modernization projects.

“The new Electronic Health Record system is the first step to modernize our appointment system, it is also the template to get us started on the road to automate disability claims and our payment claims particularly to our providers in rural America and those who administer emergency care,” he said. “More importantly, the interoperability of the new electronic health records system will connect VA to the DoD, private doctors and private pharmacies to create a continuum of care and organize the healthcare around our veteran’s needs. This is also our opportunity to turn the corner and be an industry leader on opioid abuse intervention and suicide prevention.”

During a round of questions about lengthy wait times veterans face when trying to see a doctor, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., questioned Wilkie on how long he thought it would take to implement the new EHR system. Wilkie did admit that it would take several years. Later in the hearing, following questions from Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., Wilkie again stressed that the EHR project was a massive overhaul and that change couldn’t happen overnight. That said, Wilkie did say he would work to move the project forward as quickly as possible.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., brought up the issues the Department of Defense has had with its EHR rollout–noting that the VA signed on with the same provider, Cerner. Murray pushed Wilkie on how he will avoid similar issues with the VA’s planned $10 billion rollout, asking for specific steps Wilkie plans to take. Wilkie countered that he will engage in “due diligence.” He said, “I will not commit to putting any program online until it is properly tested.” Murray pushed Wilkie on how he will hire subject matter experts to bring on board to help manage the rollout process, and Wilkie said he would get back to Murray with specific steps he would take.

Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., interrupted the normal flow of questioning to reinforce Sen. Murray’s comments. The senator stressed that Wilkie needs to bring on technology experts to ensure that the rollout goes smoothly.

At the close of the hearing, Sen. Isakson said he expects the nomination to move to a full Senate confirmation hearing in the near future.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.