Five Months In, New VA Health Record System Is 'Next-Level Frustrating'

The Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington.
The Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington. (Dept. of Veterans Affairs)

The Department of Veterans Affairs has launched a "strategic review" of its new digital medical records system as a result of problems that have arisen since it was introduced five months ago in eastern Washington.

VA officials announced Friday that the review of the Cerner Millennium system will include an assessment of the program with an eye toward improving productivity; data management and sharing; workflows; and the patient experience.

The system was launched at an initial site, Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, in Spokane, Washington, last October and is to be rolled out next at VA facilities in Columbus, Ohio, although that timeline may be adjusted as a result of the review, according to VA spokesman Terrence Hayes.

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VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Friday that an assessment of the system launch at Mann-Grandstaff made it "apparent that a strategic review is necessary."

"A successful [electronic health records] deployment is essential in the delivery of lifetime, world-class health care for our veterans," he said. "VA remains committed to the Cerner Millennium solution, and we must get this right for veterans."

Last month, the Government Accountability Office recommended that the VA postpone its rollout of the system until identified problems were fixed. The GAO identified 378 issues it classified as "critical" or "high severity" findings that needed to be resolved.

VA officials told the GAO they had addressed many of the concerns and developed workarounds for 85% of the remaining 55 problems that were not resolved.

Veterans in Spokane, however, told that the problems have not been solved and the new system has had a negative impact on their health care.

"The user interface for vets makes messaging your provider or department impossible because the directory is broken and there is limited access to recent records," wrote Spokane resident Paul Votava in a Feb. 23 email. "The providers struggle with it all the time."

"I had to download apps to refill my prescriptions and the system completely wiped out my medications list and it was an absolute nightmare to get them restored. It took me four hours to get some of my medications refilled in the system," said Elizabeth Parker. ""The VA was frustrating enough to deal with before this, now it's next-level frustrating.""

The VA awarded a contract worth up to $16 billion to Cerner in May 2018 for an electronic health records system that would be interoperable with the Defense Department's MHS Genesis system, also developed by Cerner. It is expected to replace the VA's VistA platform at all VA health facilities by 2028.

Adoption of a new platform, however, has actually been decades in the making, with the VA and DoD under a congressional requirement since at least 2008 to make their systems interoperable.

The DoD is currently rolling out the Cerner electronic medical records system across its health facilities with a goal to complete deployment by 2023.

The effect of the review, scheduled to take up to 12 weeks, on the department-wide rollout will depend on its results, according to the VA.

"While Columbus is currently scheduled to remain the next "go-live" site, the order of subsequent deployments may be revised as a result of this strategic review," VA officials said in a release.

In his message announcing the review, McDonough praised the employees who worked to deploy the new system and have been using it during an unprecedented pandemic.

"Our dedicated VA professionals continue to work feverishly on this effort even as we maneuver through the complexities and surges of the COVID-19 pandemic," he said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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