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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Murray, McMorris Rodgers demand VA stop computer system launch in Walla Walla after reports reveal problems persist at Spokane hospital

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 – A “furious” Washington senator demanded the Department of Veterans Affairs stop the launch of a new computer system in Walla Walla after a watchdog agency on Thursday revealed dozens of problems with the system remain unresolved at Spokane’s VA hospital.

Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat who sits on the Senate VA Committee, said a trilogy of reports from VA’s Office of Inspector General showed the department’s leaders have not been honest about the extent of the problems caused by the electronic health record system – which health care workers rely on to track patients’ information and coordinate care – since it was launched at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane in October 2020.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable to me that VA knew about widespread, egregious patient safety risks associated with its ongoing rollout” of the system, Murray said in a statement, “but in conversations with my office, VA has been expressing confidence and readiness for the go-live date at the Walla Walla VA. This was simply not the case.”

The new system, developed by Cerner Corp. in a $16 billion effort to replace an existing system still used by all other VA facilities, is scheduled to launch at the Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla on March 26. Despite an earlier planned rollout at facilities in Ohio being delayed to allow for more training, the top VA official in charge of the program told The Spokesman-Review on March 7 the department still intended to deploy the system in Walla Walla on schedule.

In the three reports, the Office of Inspector General said it had substantiated 46 different problems identified by veterans and VA employees, 38 of which remain unresolved nearly a year and a half after the system was launched at Mann-Grandstaff and its affiliated clinics in Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, Wenatchee and Libby, Montana.

While the reports didn’t identify any patient deaths associated with the problems, VA Inspector General Michael Missal said they found “serious deficiencies and failures” that “increased the risks to patient safety and made it more difficult for clinicians to provide quality health care,” and the same would happen at other sites if not resolved.

Although the OIG did not identify any associated patient deaths during this inspection, future deployment of the new EHR without resolving deficiencies can increase risks to patient safety.

The reported issues include veterans’ prescriptions and other information not being accurately imported into the new system, prescriptions being discontinued by the system and problems with the system’s scheduling component causing delayed care.

“I do not want to see the EHR system move so much as an inch further in Washington state,” Murray said in her statement, “until VA has proven to me that it’s fixed the problems in Spokane and provided clear, objective data showing resolutions to concerns raised by the Inspector General’s reports.”

The Washington Democrat’s statement came several weeks after Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., called for VA to halt the system’s deployment in Walla Walla until it resolves the problems that persist in Spokane, many of which were identified by a Spokesman-Review investigation in December .

McMorris Rodgers spokesman Kyle VonEnde said in an email the Spokane congresswoman was “deeply concerned about the findings” of the Inspector General reports and stood by the request she made Feb. 3 that VA Secretary Denis McDonough delay the launch of the system in Walla Walla.

“They confirm what she has been saying all along: the electronic health record system has serious issues that need to be resolved,” VonEnde wrote. “Until then, its rollout to the Walla Walla VA must be delayed.”

The VA Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office have released more than a dozen other reports since 2019 detailing many of the same problems with the Cerner system, but the reports released Thursday represent the most comprehensive accounting of the issues to date.

The reports do not address the most recent of the series of problems the system has caused in the Inland Northwest, an error caused by a software patch that corrupted patient data and forced Mann-Grandstaff to restrict operations and stop admitting new patients on March 3.

After that partial work stoppage, Murray said the system’s rollout in Walla Walla should be delayed if there was any doubt the facility could “deliver the high-quality care our veterans deserve.” When the system is launched in Walla Walla, it would also be deployed at that hospital’s associated clinics in Lewiston, Richland, Yakima and the northeastern Oregon towns of Boardman, Enterprise and La Grande.

The Inspector General’s reports acknowledged the extraordinary efforts of VA employees at Mann-Grandstaff and its associated clinics, who “encountered challenges with the new EHR but remained undeterred and dedicated to servicing patients despite the added burden of COVID- 19 pandemic stressors.” The problems associated with the Cerner system have raised concerns that VA could have even more trouble retaining its workforce, with employees forced to work longer hours and contend with added frustration caused by the new system.

According to one of the reports, Mann-Grandstaff employees “voiced impassioned commitment to the mission of serving Veterans” but said VA and Cerner’s response to their concerns about the system made them feel “unheard,” “abandoned” and “disrespected.”

In response to the reports, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate VA committees issued statements expressing concern but did not call for the Walla Walla launch to be delayed. Rep. Frank Mrvan of Indiana, chairman of a House VA subcommittee focused on the Cerner rollout, announced he will hold a roundtable event April 5 with VA employees from Spokane, Walla Walla and Columbus, Ohio, and a public hearing April 26.

A spokesman for Cerner deferred questions to the Department of Veterans Affairs. In a statement, a VA spokeswoman said the department is “actively working to evaluate all identified problem sets and develop action plans for any unresolved issues,” and still intends to launch the Cerner system in Walla Walla on March 26 and in Columbus, Ohio, on April 30.