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McMorris Rodgers, Murray slam ‘inexcusably broken’ computer system over revelations it harmed veterans

UPDATED: Tue., June 21, 2022

Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers have demanded the VA halt further rollout of the Cerner electronic medical records system, which has been plagued with problems.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers have demanded the VA halt further rollout of the Cerner electronic medical records system, which has been plagued with problems. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

WASHINGTON – Two Washington lawmakers expressed outrage Sunday and Monday over findings that a flawed computer system has harmed scores of veterans since the Department of Veterans Affairs began piloting it in the Inland Northwest in October 2020.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., issued scathing statements after The Spokesman-Review on Sunday reported that a draft report by the VA Office of Inspector General found thousands of orders from clinicians went missing in Cerner Corp.’s electronic health record system, resulting in 148 cases of harm to veterans at Spokane’s VA hospital and its affiliated clinics.

“I’m outraged by the reports of veterans being harmed by the Cerner electronic health record system,” McMorris Rodgers said Sunday. “For more than a year, Cerner and VA leadership have avoided accountability, withheld key findings and information and put the lives of our nation’s heroes at risk. Their complete lack of transparency has led to a devastating breakdown in trust between veterans and the VA.”

In her statement, McMorris Rodgers said she had repeatedly raised concerns about the system with leaders at the VA and Cerner, a Missouri-based company that was acquired by Oracle in a $28.3 billion deal that closed June 8.

“Time and time again, my concerns – and the valid concerns raised by veterans and providers – were dismissed,” she said. “It’s now clear the VA and Cerner both knew about major systematic flaws, yet they blatantly disregarded patient safety by rolling out the system to other facilities. These actions are reprehensible and entirely unacceptable for this agency, which has clearly lost sight of its sole mission of serving veterans.”

The draft report obtained by The Spokesman-Review, which may change by the time the final version is published, alleges that Cerner knew about a flaw in its system that caused orders – which doctors and nurses use to request follow-up care – to go missing with no indication that they would not reach their intended recipients. Those “lost” orders resulted in delayed care that worsened health problems for dozens of patients and left one veteran on the brink of suicide.

The report also discloses that VA Deputy Secretary Donald Remy and other top officials were told in October 2021 about the cases of harm and warned that the problem had not been completely fixed. Despite those warnings, VA deployed the Cerner system in March at facilities in Walla Walla, Richland, Lewiston, Yakima and elsewhere in the Inland Northwest, as well as sites in central Ohio a month later.

After The Spokesman-Review sent questions about the draft report, VA officials didn’t answer them but told Military Times on Friday the department would delay the planned Aug. 27 rollout of the system in Western Washington until March 2023. A launch at Portland’s VA hospital planned for November will be postponed until April 2023.

Despite a statement acknowledging that “the system hadn’t shown adequate reliability to support the current schedule,” the officials said they would not halt its deployment at the Boise VA Medical Center and its affiliated clinics across Idaho and in Eastern Oregon.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in April he would not continue with the Cerner rollout if he determined it increased risk to veterans. It is unclear if McDonough knew about the warnings VA patient safety experts shared with Remy and other top officials months earlier before Sunday’s report in The Spokesman-Review.

Murray is a senior member of both the Senate VA Committee, which provides oversight of the Cerner rollout, and the Appropriations Committee, which funds the project estimated to cost at least $21 billion over a decade. In a statement, she said The Spokesman-Review story “reinforces many of the concerns I have repeatedly raised with VA and Cerner about patient safety.”

“The consistent and recurring failures of the EHR System have been completely unacceptable,” Murray said. “We’re talking about real safety hazards and life-threatening risk to patients. While I am glad to have convinced VA to finally delay its rollout of what is clearly an inexcusably broken system in Washington state, I am still very focused on holding VA and Cerner accountable in getting this right for our veterans and the dedicated VA staff in Spokane and Walla Walla.”

In addition to the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane and the Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla, the Cerner system has so far been implemented at facilities from White City, Oregon, to Libby, Montana.

After Oracle acquired Cerner, an executive from the Texas-based technology giant said its employees had already begun making changes to the Cerner system in an effort to improve patient safety.

“I have already spoken with senior officials at Oracle and impressed upon them the importance of making this right immediately,” Murray said. “I have raised this issue with increasing urgency in both public and private settings with Secretary McDonough – at numerous Senate hearings and over many calls and meetings with him and other VA officials – and I won’t stop pressing for solutions and accountability until this gets fixed.”

Once the Cerner system is launched in Boise on Saturday, it will also be used at clinics in Caldwell, Twin Falls, Salmon and Mountain Home, Idaho, and in Hines, Oregon. Based on the system’s rollout at other sites, veterans who rely on those facilities can expect longer wait times as VA health care providers are required to limit the number of patients they can see each day during the initial months after the launch.

In a column published June 6, all four GOP members of Idaho’s congressional delegation expressed concern with the VA’s plan to bring the troubled computer system to more facilities in their state. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch had previously sent a letter to McDonough on April 27 along with Rep. Russ Fulcher, whose district includes North Idaho, and Rep. Mike Simpson, who represents the state’s eastern half.

“We owe it to Idaho veterans to ensure they get proper access to the services they deserve,” the four lawmakers wrote in the column. “These include ensuring systems designed to streamline veterans services do not prevent them from getting the medicines and other resources they need.”

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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