WASHINGTON – Two weeks after the Department of Veterans Affairs launched its new electronic health record system at a hospital in Walla Walla – and a day after the system went down for more than two hours – a top VA official said Thursday the rollout has been a success.
On a call with reporters, VA Deputy Secretary Donald Remy acknowledged Wednesday’s outage and another problem with the system a week earlier but said the transition to the new computer system, which health care workers rely on to track patient information and coordinate care, was “going pretty well.”
The March 26 launch made the Walla Walla hospital, whose director joined Remy on the call, the first VA medical center to adopt the system since it was deployed in October 2020 at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, where a slew of problems has threatened patient safety and left employees frustrated and demoralized. The system is also used at clinics associated with the two hospitals in Washington, Idaho and Oregon.
“We’re making progress, and I’ve got to tell you I’m pleased,” Remy said. “We’ve learned quite a few lessons from our deployment at Mann-Grandstaff and we’ve incorporated those learnings into this go-live.”
While VA employees in Walla Walla had been submitting “trouble tickets” when they encountered problems with the new system, Remy said, as of Thursday all of the tickets related to patient safety had been addressed.
“We continue to monitor staff morale and clinical productivity, both at Mann-Grandstaff and at Walla Walla, to make sure that we’re providing our team with the tools that they need to be successful,” he added.
The launch went ahead over the objections of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who called on VA to halt the rollout until it fixes problems identified by a Spokesman-Review investigation last December and a trio of reports released by the VA Office of Inspector General on March 17.
Problems with the system, developed by Cerner Corp. in a program projected to cost at least $16 billion, have continued in recent weeks. On March 3, a system update by Cerner corrupted data in some veterans’ records and forced Mann-Grandstaff to stop admitting patients for a day on March 3. While the hospital kept operating, workers had to use “downtime procedures,” a now-common process that involves hand-writing information that must be entered into the computer system once it is restored.
On March 31, an issue with Cerner’s prescription management system caused employees at Mann-Grandstaff to again resort to pen and paper for medication-related work for 31/2 hours, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes confirmed in an email, “because the issue caused extreme delays” with the computer system. That issue affected all Cerner customers, including the Department of Defense, whose adoption of a Cerner system in 2017 prompted VA to sign its own $10 billion contract with the company without going through a competitive bidding process.
Less than a week later, on Wednesday, Mann-Grandstaff Director Robert Fischer ordered staff once again to use “downtime procedures” for more than two hours due to “a medical center-wide outage in accessing and maintaining connectivity” with the system, according to emails obtained by The Spokesman-Review.
Terry Adirim, who heads VA’s Electronic Health Record Modernization Integration Office, told reporters Thursday that the previous day’s outage was caused by a “bug” in a server run by Oracle, the technology giant in the process of buying Cerner for $28.3 billion. Neither problem in the past week was directly caused by the launch in Walla Walla, Adirim said, and VA was “not aware of any disruptions to care” as a result.
Still, Adirim, who practiced pediatric emergency medicine for more than 25 years, said not being able to use a computer system makes it harder for clinicians to do…