VA healthcare staff rely on medical records to manage veterans’ care. Since the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act passed in August 2014, more than 70 million appointments with non-VA providers have been completed, generating at least as many medical documents. 1 Non-VA providers send medical documents to VA medical facilities for staff to scan or import into patients’ electronic health records (EHRs), which helps ensure continuity of care by healthcare providers. Incorporating these non-VA medical documents into the patients’ EHRs is critical to supporting patient care because it contributes to more complete, accurate, and readily accessible health records that guide clinicians’ decisions.
An August 2017 site assessment summary by Cerner Corporation consultants and a VA team outlined VA staff concerns with document scanning backlogs.2 In June 2018, the President signed the VA Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks (MISSION) Act, expanding opportunities for community care for veterans from non-VA providers. The MISSION Act has the potential to significantly increase the volume of documentation VA medical facilities will receive from outside providers for scanning, as well as any related backlog.
What the OIG Found
Significant medical documentation backlogs have occurred VHA-wide in part because VA medical facility staff did not scan documentation and enter electronic medical records into patients’ EHRs in a timely manner. Based on data provided by the eight facilities visited and the 78 facilities interviewed, the audit team calculated that as of July 19, 2018, VA medical facilities had a cumulative medical documentation backlog of paper documentation that measured approximately 5.15 miles high and contained at least 597,000 individual electronic document files dating back to October 2016.
The OIG team also found when medical facility staff scan medical documentation, they are not always performing the appropriate reviews and monitoring to assess the overall quality and legibility of the scanned documents. According to some VHA staff and a recent Comprehensive Healthcare Inspection Program Review published by the OIG Office of Healthcare Inspections, these issues put patients’ continuity of care at risk because the lack of current medical documentation makes it challenging to ensure they receive accurate diagnoses and timely quality care.3
VHA needs to improve the management of scanning activities—including importing, indexing, and legibility checks—and ensure related resources and staffing are adequate. These steps would facilitate medical records being scanned and indexed to EHRs in a timely manner and support appropriate quality assurance monitoring throughout the scanning process. In addition, VHA needs to establish and implement an adequate training program for personnel performing scanning and indexing roles within medical facilities. These actions are necessary to help ensure veterans receive appropriately informed quality care in a timely manner.
Limited Monitoring and Oversight Contributed to Backlogs
The audit team found that VHA supervision and monitoring were limited for overseeing scanning activities and medical record backlogs at its medical facilities. VHA’s Health Information Management (HIM) staff conduct an annual inventory requesting status details of facility HIM operations to determine future training needs and to identify medical facilities needing technical assistance.4 However, specific backlog details such as descriptions of the documents, size of the backlog, and age of unscanned records are not consistently addressed as part of this inventory, according to HIM leaders and VA medical facility staff. In addition, the OIG found HIM leaders do not use the annual inventory results to advise facility leaders on how to resolve or prevent backlogs. The HIM office’s primary role in medical document scanning is creating policy. VHA facility directors are the designated authorities for enforcing that policy.
According to VHA Handbook 1907.07, VHA facility directors are responsible for developing and monitoring processes to ensure all health record filing and scanning duties are completed in a timely manner.5In addition, facility directors are responsible for ensuring someone knowledgeable about health record file room management and scanning activities supervises these activities. However, during audit team site visits, neither the chiefs of HIM nor their designees responsible for supervising scanning activities always had direct knowledge of the scanning processes and backlog information within their facilities.6
Staffing shortages also were a factor in medical documentation backlogs. Facility directors are responsible for establishing policies and processes to ensure all duties associated with health record scanning are done in a timely manner, including that qualified and trained individuals work in health record file room and scanning departments. Staffing levels should be proportional to the volume of scanning to be completed; however, staffing levels and productivity standards varied significantly among the facilities reviewed, even between facilities with comparable veteran populations, demonstrating that VHA facility directors are not consistently assessing staffing needs based on scanning demand.
In response to this audit, the Office of the Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Operations and Management issued a memo dated February 12, 2019, directing medical facilities with scanning backlogs to allocate the necessary additional resources to eliminate the backlogs. The memorandum requires VISN directors with active backlogs to implement action plans to include (1) using blanket purchase agreements, if available, or other contracting mechanisms; (2) shifting resources to assist those facilities with a significant backlog; and (3) authorizing compensatory time and overtime to staff who volunteer to assist. The memo also directs that technological issues affecting scanning productivity be addressed promptly.
Quality Assurance and Training Requirements Were Not Met
The chiefs of HIM at seven of eight medical facilities visited did not ensure compliance with mandatory quality assurance reviews after staff scanned medical records and indexed them to the EHRs. Facility site visits revealed that quality assurance monitoring by chiefs of HIM or their designees varied significantly. Quality assurance monitoring practices ranged from reviewing 0 percent of all scanned and indexed records at one facility to 100 percent at another facility.
Furthermore, staff at the eight VA medical facilities visited would scan, index, and place documentation in shred receptacles. The shred receptacles were emptied daily, weekly, or monthly without ensuring this documentation was available for quality assurance reviews that would identify and correct any errors.
The VHA medical facility chiefs of HIM or their designees did not establish or maintain training requirements to make certain medical facility staff had adequate instruction. The audit team found the eight medical facilities visited did not consistently follow training policy. In addition, chiefs of HIM at six of eight medical facilities did not train staff who conducted scanning duties outside of the HIM department—such as staff assigned to other departments or offices—to ensure uniform scanning standards.
What the OIG Recommended
The OIG made nine recommendations to the executive in charge for VHA to address HIM Medical Document Scanning Program deficiencies in three key areas:7
- Define and promptly reduce backlogs
- Assess staffing resources to account for scanning demand
- Develop monitoring roles, controls, and procedures
The executive in charge, Office of the Under Secretary for Health, concurred with Recommendations 1–9 and submitted acceptable corrective action plans for all recommendations. The OIG will monitor implementation of planned actions and will close the recommendations when VA provides sufficient evidence demonstrating progress in addressing the issues identified.
LARRY M. REINKEMEYER
Assistant Inspector General for Audits and Evaluations
1 The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act was intended to expand veterans’ access to community care. The audit team utilized the VHA Support Service Center (VSSC) Non-VA Care cube to calculate the number of appointments with non-VA providers.
2 In May 2018, VA signed a contract with the Cerner Corporation to modernize the VA’s healthcare IT system and help provide seamless care to veterans as they transition from military service to veteran status, and when they choose to use community care. A Cerner consulting team and VA subject matter experts conducted site assessments with the intent of getting a broad look at the current state of systems, applications, integration points, reporting, and workflows being utilized at VHA facilities.
3 VA OIG Report, Comprehensive Healthcare Inspection Program Review of the Washington DC VA Medical Center, Report Number 17-01757-50, published on January 28, 2019, states that “VHA requires timely filing or scanning of reports into patients’ EHRs. The OIG found that 1,550 inches of paper patient reports dating back to 2014 had not been scanned into the EHR system. This prevented healthcare providers from accessing patient results to perform a comprehensive evaluation of the patients’ healthcare needs and provide timely quality care.”
4 HIM staff can be found at both the national program level as well as at the facility level.
5 VHA Handbook 1907.07, Management of Health Records File Room and Scanning, May 12, 2016.
6 VHA Handbook 1907.07 states that facility directors may designate any individual to supervise health record file room and scanning activities as long as they are a qualified professional who is well-versed in all aspects of health record file room management and scanning activities. The handbook further states that the chief of HIM or other designee is preferred.
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