Trump's 'Mar-a-Lago Crowd' reviewed VA's $10B Cerner contract before signing, pushed for Apple app

An informal group at President Donald Trump's private Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., was allowed to review the Veterans Affairs Department's $10 billion EHR modernization contract with Cerner, according to recently released emails and documents reviewed by ProPublica.

The group of three men — Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, West Palm Beach, Fla.-based physician Bruce Moskowitz, MD, and lawyer Marc Sherman — reportedly edited the contract and were place on an "executive committee," emails that ProPublica obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show. The trio has little to no health IT or federal contracting experience, yet were among the 40 experts listed as contract reviewers, alongside several high-profile hospital executives from prominent academic medical centers.

The emails also reportedly show Dr. Moskowitz negotiating with the VA and Apple to encourage the agency to use a health app he had developed. A May 2017 email from a VA IT official reads: "We are utilizing the native iOS mobile app, Emergency Medical Center Tracker, that Dr. Moskowitz developed."

When Darin Selnick, a VA official who serves as special advisor to the VA secretary, told Dr. Moskowitz that the agency's IT division wanted to begin work on his app, Dr. Moskowitz insisted the division work with "our specialist." As it turns out, that specialist was Dr. Moskowitz's son, according to ProPublica.

After the partnership with Apple didn't go his way, Dr. Moskowitz expressed frustration at the VA. "The VA dropped all contact and proceeded on its own. So now we have a product of limited value," he said in a March 2018 email.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has reportedly distanced himself from the group, according to ProPublica. His spokesperson has blamed Mr. Wilkie's predecessor, David Shulkin, MD, for establishing the relationship with the trio.

"Although his predecessors may have done things differently, Sec. Wilkie has been clear about how he does business," a VA spokesperson said in a statement to ProPublica. "No one from outside the administration dictates VA policies or decisions — that's up to Sec. Wilkie and President Trump. Period."

That decision could pose a problem for Mr. Wilkie, since the trio reportedly helped push Dr. Shulkin from his role as VA secretary in March 2018.

Although Mr. Wilkie has said his team has cut communication with the group, Mr. Perlmutter remains close friends with President Trump. He has reportedly been criticizing Mr. Wilkie and is displeased with the progress of the VA's EHR transition, according to ProPublica.

In late November, the U.S. Government Accountability Office agreed to investigate whether the informal council had or continues to have influence over decisions at the VA.

To access the full ProPublica report, click here.

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