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VA delays further deployment of computer system that has caused problems in Spokane, citing COVID-19 surge

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 14, 2022

Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center is pictured.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center is pictured. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans affairs announced Friday it will delay by two months the expansion of a troubled computer system already being used in Spokane, pushing back deployment at a VA hospital in Ohio until the end of April due to surging COVID-19 cases.

The new electronic health record system – developed by Cerner Corp. to replace the VA’s existing system used to coordinate care and track patients’ information – has caused safety risks and delayed care since it was rolled out at Spokane’s Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in October 2020, a Spokesman-Review investigation found in December.

In a news release, the VA official newly charged with overseeing the program said the planned March 5 rollout at a hospital in Columbus, Ohio, was no longer possible because the nationwide spike in coronavirus cases had caused staffing shortages and forced the department to delay training employees on the new system.

“As we see the pandemic surge in the Columbus community, we need to support the medical professionals while they focus their attention on meeting the health care needs of their patients,” said Terry Adirim, program executive director of the VA’s Electronic Health Record Modernization Integration Office, adding that rolling out the new system “must be weighed against community health and can be resumed when it is appropriate to do so.”

According to the news release, more than 200 employees at the Columbus facility were unable to work, though it was unclear how many of those workers had contracted COVID-19. As of late November, the VA’s facilities in central Ohio had a total of roughly 1,700 employees, according to local VA spokesman Mark McCann.

The next VA medical center set to adopt the new system is in Walla Walla on March 26, according to a tentative schedule the department released in November. In a call with reporters, VA spokeswoman Melissa Bryant said the department will likely delay “go-live” dates at Walla Walla and other facilities, though she did not announce new dates for any other sites.

“We’re going to re-evaluate the entirety of the deployment list,” said Bryant, the VA deputy assistant secretary for public affairs. “We’re going to try to stay on track as much as possible. That said, with omicron kind of throwing a monkey wrench into things, so to speak, this is where that may potentially slip.”

Following the planned rollouts of the Cerner system in Columbus and Walla Walla, the next sites on VA’s tentative schedule are Roseburg and White City, Oregon, on June 11, followed by Boise on June 25, Anchorage, Alaska, on July 16 and several large facilities in the Puget Sound region Aug. 27.

Cerner signed a $10 billion contract with the VA in May 2018 to build an electronic health record system similar to a system Cerner began implementing at Department of Defense medical facilities, starting at Fairchild Air Force Base outside Spokane, in 2017. A federal watchdog agency has found the VA severely underestimated the cost of the project, which is years behind schedule, projecting a total cost of some $21 billion. Technology giant Oracle announced Dec. 20 it was acquiring Cerner in a deal worth $28.3 billion.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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