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WASHINGTON -- When the U.S. Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee met last week to discuss transparency and accountability involving veterans health care facilities, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., used the hearing to ask officials about oversight over local leaders.

The senator from Rogers based his questions during Wednesday's hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs' deployment of an electronic health record system and legislation addressing the agency's peer review process.

"Accountability and transparency at the VA are imperative in ensuring quality care within the organization," Boozman told panelists.

The agency began implementing an electronic health record system in 2020 with the hope of creating an interconnected exchange between VA facilities, community care partners and health care systems.

Officials paused future rollouts in April amid issues affecting five sites utilizing the electronic records project.

"The DoD [Department of Defense] has been able to implement the same system in all of its facilities in the U.S.," Boozman said. "However, the VA has not yet fully implemented the system in even one facility."

Boozman sympathized with the VA's frustrations in pursuing the full implementation of its electronic health record system, adding local leadership must play a critical role in a successful deployment.

The senator asked the hearing's panelists if the VA is considering options to "hold medical directors accountable" if local leaders challenge the implementation. David Perry, the Veteran Health Administration's chief officer for workforce management and consulting, said local leaders have not pushed back against deployment efforts.

"That was not a reason for delaying any of the deployment, sir," he told Boozman.

Perry described the pause as a chance to allow officials to contact vendors and make changes based on feedback.

"What I can say is we heard loud and clear from our clinical community that there were some real challenges with the system, and we wanted to make sure that we got it right," he said.

Boozman additionally asked panelists about the importance of supporting impartiality in the VA's peer review process concerning quality of care.

The senator tied the question to one of his bills for this Congress. The VA Peer Review Neutrality Act would require peer reviewers to withdraw from cases involving conflict of interest. Another VA facility's Peer Review Committee would have authority over evaluating any findings.

Boozman and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., introduced the legislation in September. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is co-sponsoring the measure.

The VA Peer Review Neutrality additionally would require the Veterans Affairs secretary to have a plan for filling any VA medical center director vacancies within 180 days after detailing a standing director to a new position.

Boozman championed identical language in another veterans-related bill, the VA CAREERS Act. Senators introduced the measure in January. Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican from Rogers, presented a companion bill to Boozman's provision -- titled the VACANT Act -- following the introduction of the Senate measure.

Both Boozman's provision and Womack's legislation stem from an opening at the Fayetteville VA Medical Center. The facility did not have a permanent director from May 2021 to late January of this year.

Perry stressed the importance of impartiality in investigations. He tied this stance to the VA's support of the Leadership, Engagement, Accountability and Development Act, a separate legislative proposal requiring the agency to establish systems for processing actions concerning employee misconduct, including regular oversight visits to local and regional health care facilities.

"I think those outside neutral reviews are paramount to make sure we get it right and that we don't have things continue to happen that lead to bad outcomes," he said.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the Senate committee's chairman, introduced the LEAD Act in July. During the hearing, Boozman playfully asked Tester if the Montanan noticed the VA's support and felt like the Senate needed to get the bill "pushed forward."

"At your request, Sen. Boozman," Tester responded with a smile.

The Senate used time on the floor last week to consider amendments to a spending "minibus" addressing military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as funding related to the departments of Agriculture, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development.

Boozman serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee and as the top Republican on the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Subcommittee. He expressed optimism during the hearing regarding the Senate's chances of passing the "minibus" early this week.

To read the full article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette click here