In the latest leadership shake-up at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Genevieve Morris has stepped down from her role as Chief Health Information Officer at the VA’s newly established Office of Electronic Health Record Modernization (OEHRM).
Morris' depature sparks questions about the leadership and direction of the VA's massive $16 billion EHR modernization project, slated to go live in 2020.
OEHRM was launched in June to manage the preparation, deployment and maintenance of VA’s new electronic healthcare record system and the health IT tools dependent upon it. Media reports indicate that Morris stepped down Friday morning, only a little more than a month into her role.
Previously, Morris, a health IT policy leader, had been detailed to the VA from her position as the principal deputy national coordinator for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and then moved over full time to lead OEHRM in July. At the time, it was expected that Morris and OEHRM would work in close alignment with VA’s Under Secretary of Health and CIO.
Via Twitter on Friday, Morris posted her resgination letter to both HHS Secretary Alex Azar and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie:
VA signed a contract with Cerner Corp. on May 17 to replace its decades-old Veterans Integrated System Technology Architecture (VistA) EHR technology over the next 10 years with the new Cerner system, which is in the pilot phase at the Department of Defense (DoD). The system is designed to allow the VA to have patient data shared seamlessly between VA and DoD.
In a press release, the VA announced that John Windom was appointed acting CHIO for VA’s OEHRM program. Windom has been the executive director for VA's Electronic Health Record Modernization (EHRM) since August 2017.
“We appreciate Genevieve Morris’ efforts in helping VA’s team as the department finalized the electronic health-care record system contract with Cerner in May, and in serving since July as Chief Health Information Officer (CHIO) for the Office of Electronic Health Record Modernization (OEHRM). We thank her for her service and wish her the best in her future endeavors,” the VA stated.
John Windom is a recently retired Navy captain who, according to the VA, “played a key leadership role in the Pentagon’s electronic health record modernization efforts, and in leading VA’s negotiations with Cerner over the last year.”
“OEHRM is focused on ensuring a successful transition from a legacy patient data system to a new electronic health record integrated across VA, the Department of Defense and the private sector. VA will benefit from John’s strong background on this project, as it begins the transition to the new system for the benefit of Veterans’ care in the future,” VA officials said.
According to Morris' tweet, her full resignation letter to Azar and Wilkie is as follows: “Dear Mr. Secretaries Azar and Wilkie, It was an honor to be asked to serve the people of this country as the Principal Deputy National Coordinator, leading interoperability efforts for the Office of the National Coordinator, and it was likewise an honor to be asked to serve as the Chief Health Information Officer (CHIO) for the Office of EHR Modernization (OEHRM) at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on a detail.
I am incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to serve our veterans, who deserve nothing less than the best service we can provide. Over the last few weeks, it has become clear to me that VA’s leadership intends to take the EHR modernization effort in a different direction than we were headed, and since my service as CHIO was always intended to be an interim solution, I am offering my resignation to the administration effective immediately. I greatly appreciate the many team members of the VA who are working tirelessly for our veterans and who have supported the efforts we have undertaken over the last few months. Thank you for the opportunity to serve.”
Regarding her future plans, Morris said in her Tweet: "As to future plans, taking a long nap is in my near future."
Morris’ sudden departure follows a number of other executive departures from the VA. Politico reported that Ashwini Zenooz, the chief medical officer in charge of the department's EHR implementation, announced her resignation on Tuesday, effective Sept. 4.
Back in March, President Donald Trump fired Former VA Secretary David Shulkin, M.D., and his departure was followed by acting CIO Scott Blackburn, who resigned from his position in April. VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman also retired in May.
In July, the Senate confirmed Robert Wilkie, a nominee of Trump, as VA Secretary. For about four months, Wilkie had been the acting VA secretary following Trump’s dismissal of Shulkin. Wilkie, who is also the Department of Defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, was Trump’s second nominee for the VA position.
Also in July, Trump nominated James Paul Gfrerer, former executive director at Ernst & Young, as assistant secretary for information and technology at the VA. If confirmed by the Senate, Gfrerer will take the place of former VA CIO Scott Blackburn.
There have been ongoing concerns from veterans groups and lawmakers about VA leadership and the influence of what has been dubbed the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd,” or three wealthy members of President Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Florida. According to a report by ProPublica, three friends of Trump—Ike Perlmutter, the reclusive chairman of Marvel Entertainment, Marc Sherman, a lawyer, and Bruce Moskowitz, a doctor, are secretly shaping the Trump administration’s veterans policies.
Veterans’ advocacy group VoteVets filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration on Aug. 16 alleging that the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd" is influencing VA policy without any official role or expertise.
Morris' comments in her resignation letter also seem to bring to light questions about VA leadership.
The VA plans to begin deployment of the new $16 billion EHR system at three sites in the Pacific Northwest—Spokane, Seattle and American Lakes, all in Washington—in October 2018 with a goal of full capability by March 2020. However, the ongoing leadership changes and shakeups are troubling to many lawmakers. Congressional leaders have voiced concerns about vacancies in critical leadership roles and about media reports on the influence of the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd.”
The House has created a subcommittee to focus on conducting oversight of the EHR modernization program and other technology projects at VA.
“Leadership will make or break this project, as will the oversight,” Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) said during a House committee hearing on the VA’s Cerner EHR project back in June. “This panel will be a small group of three to five committee members who will focus intensively on these issues. EHR modernization is a big bet on the future of VA and we simply must make sure it succeeds.”