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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Veterans Affairs chief orders probe into health records system at Spokane VA Medical Center

The Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Northwest Spokane in 2018.  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday announced it would conduct a review into problems with a new electronic health record system being piloted at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane.

In a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said he ordered the “strategic review” after the department looked into reports of problems with the electronic health record system in his first month in office. The system, developed by Cerner Corporation, was rolled out at Mann-Grandstaff in October after multiple delays.

“After a rigorous review of our most-recent deployment at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, it is apparent that a strategic review is necessary,” McDonough said. “VA remains committed to the Cerner Millennium solution, and we must get this right for Veterans.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, wrote to McDonough on Wednesday calling for an inquiry into reports of problems with ordering prescriptions, the online portal patients use to schedule appointments and refill prescriptions, and inadequate training on the new system.

“I am hearing an increasing number of complaints and pleas for help,” McMorris Rodgers wrote. “I have one report of a VA doctor ordering a veteran two medications, but he received 15 erroneous medications. I have multiple reports of prescriptions being delayed, which in one case caused a veteran to suffer withdrawal. These impacts are dangerous and unacceptable.”

McMorris Rodgers welcomed the department’s Friday announcement, which said the review would take no more than 12 weeks.

“I am encouraged to see Secretary McDonough respond swiftly to my calls for review of the broken electronic health record system that has caused new stress on veterans and VA staff in Eastern Washington,” she said in a statement. “This decision was the right one, and I’m hopeful we can work together towards our common goal of improving the lives of our veterans.”

Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, also hailed the move.

“There’s no question we need safe, secure, efficient processes for health records to be shared within Veterans Affairs and with the Department of Defense–and soon–but to truly help veterans this must be done right and not rushed,” Murray said. “I know how much this project means for veterans in Eastern Washington, so I’m glad Veterans Affairs is giving this the attention it deserves and I will continue to monitor closely.”

A Feb. 11 report by the Government Accountability Office, a federal oversight agency, recommended the VA postpone the use of the Cerner system at any other medical centers until problems are fixed at Mann-Grandstaff, which also serves veterans through satellite clinics in Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, Wenatchee and Libby, Montana.

According to the GAO report, the VA delayed adoption of the new system in Spokane until problems “that could result in system failure” found through tests had been resolved, but the October rollout went ahead with 55 “high-severity test findings” still unresolved.

In Friday’s announcement, the VA said its findings in Spokane could force a “schedule shift” but it still plans to move forward with implementing the system next at the VA medical center in Columbus, Ohio. The department launched the first part of the system, an appointment-scheduling tool, in Columbus last August.

In 2018, Kansas City-based Cerner secured a contract worth up to $10 billion to build the new health record system without going through a competitive bidding process because the company had previously won a contract to develop a similar system for the Department of Defense, despite a Pentagon report finding the new software was “neither operationally effective, nor operationally suitable.”

That Pentagon system was also first deployed at Fairchild Air Force Base and three bases west of the Cascades.

Speaking at Fairchild in October 2018, then-VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the department had chosen Spokane as the testing ground for the new system because the area had “the perfect mix of active duty, technical infrastructure, rural components, and a large number of veterans.”

“We are testing out the medical health records, which is the largest program the VA has ever undertaken,” Wilkie said. “We are going to test it here in Spokane. That will be the template for the entire country.”