Lawmakers Balk at VA Plans to Roll Out Electronic Medical Records System

Military.com | By Patricia Kime

The Department of Veterans Affairs has no plans to delay the schedule for adopting its new electronic health records program, even after the system crashed at its test site last week, halting medical treatments and intakes at a major VA hospital.

VA spokesman Terrence Hayes said Friday that the schedule to put the Cerner Millennium system into use would "not be affected by this event," which caused the hospital to pause patient admissions and most appointments at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington.

Hospital leaders temporarily halted operations the afternoon of March 3 through the following morning after finding that the data in the system was corrupted or inaccurate.

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Hayes said no surgeries were postponed as a result, and "despite rumors, the facility's Urgent Care Center remained opened" during the outage, while only "minor disruptions took place in pharmacy and laboratory services."

"The [outage] prevents VA from knowing the full extent of appointment cancellations through Cerner Millennium. However, every effort was made to complete all scheduled appointments," Hayes said in an email to Military.com.

The episode marks another chapter in the troubled rollout of the VA's $16 billion planned electronic health records system, developed by Missouri-based Cerner Corp.

VA launched the platform at Mann-Grandstaff in November 2020 following two months-long delays to address the department's information technology infrastructure and training and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just six months after its introduction at the facility, VA launched a "strategic review" of the system after complaints from medical providers and patients that the platform was not user-friendly and did not improve data sharing, management and workflow.

The concerns have caught the attention of Washington lawmakers, who have requested that VA delay introducing the system later this month at the Walla Walla VA Health System until it is fully functional.

Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said Friday that she planned to speak with VA Secretary Denis McDonough this week to discuss issues with the system and how such an outage could occur.

"The shutdown of Mann-Grandstaff VA yesterday is another event in a series of challenges that the new electronic health record has created for staff and veterans at the facility," McMorris Rodgers said in a press release. "I stand by the request I made on February 3rd for the go-live in Walla Walla to be delayed until the VA can ensure the facility can maintain the highest levels of service for our veterans."

In September, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told McDonough she had received reports that veterans had received incorrect medications as a result of the system's complexities and issues.

And she urged VA leadership to provide better support and training to staff members.

On Friday, Murray said she would monitor the launch at Walla Walla, saying that if the facility's ability to deliver care for veterans becomes uncertain, the rollout should be delayed.

"It's absolutely unacceptable that a technical failure by Cerner has led to patients being turned away at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane," Murray said in a media release.

"Throughout the electronic health record modernization effort, my focus has been, and continues to be, making sure any issues that keep Washington state veterans from getting the care and treatment they have earned are addressed -- period."

Hayes said that system outages, even on the VA's current VistA system, are rare, but they can occur. He added that the department has worked with Cerner and staff members to ensure that employees know what to do during an outage to limit the impact on patient care and productivity.

"VA is contacting all 205 Veterans whose patient record may have been affected by this issue and is providing support and resources to ensure that they continue to get the care they need," Hayes said.

According to a schedule released by VA in December, 12 VA medical centers were to receive the system by the end of this year and 21 more by the end of 2023, with a goal to have it operational at all sites in 2028.

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

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