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‘Absolutely unacceptable’: Lawmakers demand answers after Spokane VA hospital restores critical computer system following outage

UPDATED: Fri., March 4, 2022

The Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, photographed Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
The Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, photographed Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed Friday a critical computer system had been restored after corrupted patient data caused Spokane’s VA hospital and clinics across the Inland Northwest to stop admitting patients a day earlier, though employees said problems with patient records persisted throughout the day.

In an email, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said more than 200 patients’ records may have been affected by the error, which caused the director of the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center to order a near-complete work stoppage Thursday, the latest in a series of problems that have plagued the system since it was launched in October 2020 at the Spokane hospital and VA clinics in Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, Wenatchee and Libby, Montana.

The outage forced the VA to take the system down from about 10:30 a.m. local time Thursday until about 7 a.m. Friday, Hayes said. The system, developed by Missouri-based Cerner Corp. under a $10 billion contract, is so far used only at Mann-Grandstaff and its affiliated clinics, but Hayes said the outage also affected a hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where the system is scheduled to launch at the end of April.

“There are no known patient safety issues because of this outage,” Hayes said, adding VA and Cerner have established procedures to “limit the impact on productivity and patient care,” and the department was contacting all 205 patients whose records were affected.

Despite the system being restored, multiple health care workers at Mann-Grandstaff said some patient records remained inaccessible throughout the day Friday.

In an email sent Friday morning and obtained by The Spokesman-Review, Mann-Grandstaff director Robert Fischer told staff the problems with corrupted patient data were “reported to be resolved,” but he added there were “a number of impacted Veterans’ health records that remain inaccessible.”

Fischer directed employees to resume admitting patients and go ahead with scheduled surgeries while using “an extra degree of caution,” reporting any ongoing problems to technical support staff using an internal chat. In a screenshot of that chat log obtained by The Spokesman-Review, employees reported still being unable to view some patients’ records.

Lawmakers who represent Washington in the House and Senate expressed frustration and demanded answers Friday.

“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,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement. “I have pressed both Cerner and VA to get my office answers immediately on what went wrong and what steps they’re taking to prevent it from happening again.”

“VA needs to be upfront about issues like this in real time,” Murray continued. “Congress absolutely requires transparency when it comes to failures as serious as this. I shouldn’t be hearing about this from local reporting first.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, called the shutdown “another event in a series of challenges that the new electronic health record has created for staff and veterans at the facility.”

“My understanding is that an update made to help the VA’s database for demographic data better communicate with the Cerner system was not performed correctly,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “Mann-Grandstaff leadership rightly took the system offline until the scope of the problem was understood, so no patients were harmed.”

McMorris Rodgers reiterated her call for the system’s launch at the VA hospital in Walla Walla, scheduled for March 26, to be delayed until the department can ensure flaws won’t jeopardize veterans’ care. The Spokane Republican added she planned to speak with VA Secretary Denis McDonough the following week about the ongoing problems.

In her statement, Murray said she had met earlier in the week with the director of the Walla Walla VA Medical Center and said the system’s launch there should be delayed “If their ability to deliver the high-quality care our veterans deserve becomes uncertain at any point.”

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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