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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Democrats, Republicans offer competing bills to fix VA computer system that has harmed veterans in Spokane

Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, D-Fla., and Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., listen to testimony about the electronic health record system first launched at Spokane’s VA medical center on March 7 during a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Technology Modernization.  (Orion Donovan-Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – Two and a half years after the Department of Veterans Affairs began testing a new computer system at Spokane’s VA hospital, virtually no one in Congress is satisfied with the outcome, but Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate committees responsible for the effort have different ideas about how to fix it.

On Wednesday, Democratic and Republican senators announced separate bills aimed at improving the electronic health record system, for which the VA is paying $10 billion to Oracle after the tech giant acquired Cerner, the company behind the software. The legislation was unveiled two weeks after VA officials told senators problems with the system had contributed to six cases of “catastrophic harm,” including the deaths of four veterans.

Republicans on the House VA Committee released legislation in January that would freeze or cancel the system’s rollout and Democrats on the panel followed March 22 with two bills intended to improve the management and oversight of VA projects.

The flurry of legislation comes at a turning point for the beleaguered effort to replace the VA’s existing computer system with Oracle Cerner’s, which began in 2017 when then-President Donald Trump promised the deal brokered by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would give veterans “faster, better and far better quality care.”

Since the system was launched at Spokane’s Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center and its affiliated clinics across the Inland Northwest in October 2020, it has had the opposite effect, according to a Spokesman-Review investigation.

Top VA officials in charge of the program have left the department in the wake of revelations that a problem with the system led to roughly 150 cases of harm to veterans. An internal VA report shared with Congress in March identified several other problems.

Deputy Secretary Donald Remy officially stepped down Saturday, after he told lawmakers in November 2021 that the system worked and the department had “properly positioned it for success” despite having been informed of the incidents of harm. Terry Adirim, the executive in charge of the system’s rollout, resigned in February. Months after Remy shared information about the patient harm with her, according to the VA Office of Inspector General, Adirim told lawmakers last April she didn’t believe there was “any evidence” the Oracle Cerner system had “harmed any patients or that it will.”

After multiple delays prompted by the problems that have emerged from VA facilities using the system in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and Ohio, VA officials have said they plan to launch it in June at a hospital in Saginaw, Michigan. As that date approaches and the system continues to affect veterans where it is already in use, here’s a look at the legislative proposals to fix it.

Senate Democrats want the VA to prove the system is safe, renegotiate the Oracle contract and develop a plan B

The bill unveiled Wednesday by Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Patty Murray of Washington and Sherrod Brown of Ohio would mandate that the VA set clear criteria that must be met before the system is launched at additional sites – something VA leaders have said they are already working on – and require the department and Oracle Cerner to fix the system’s problems that were identified in a recent VA report.

“This legislation will put into law the kind of aggressive oversight necessary to fix the current system – that’s my first priority,” Murray said in a statement.

The Senate Democrats’ bill also would require the VA to appoint an official to negotiate a more favorable contract with Oracle Cerner – and to develop a “plan B” for a new electronic health record system in case the company doesn’t agree to the new contract. Other provisions in the legislation aim to reform the VA’s acquisition process to avoid similar contracting blunders in the future.

Senate Republicans want the VA secretary to certify the system is safe before launching it elsewhere

Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the top Republican on the Senate VA Committee, introduced his bill along with several other GOP senators, including Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho. Their legislation, which is relatively narrow, would require the VA secretary to certify in writing to the panel that the system has met minimum standards for stability, safety and usability that would be defined by senior VA leaders.

“Our nation’s veterans have gone through too much to see delays in services due to technology errors,” Risch said in a statement. “The VA in Spokane, which serves North Idaho veterans, has experienced significant slowdowns. While the VA appropriately postponed the deployment of the Oracle Cerner system to other facilities, Congress must intervene to protect the health care needs of our veterans.”

In a statement, Crapo said it would be irresponsible to continue the system’s rollout before “all concerns have been properly and adequately addressed.”

The language in the Senate Republicans’ bill is similar to language included by Murray, Tester and others in the government funding bill Congress passed in December. But it would go a step further by blocking the system’s launch rather than simply withholding funds.

It marks something of a change in tone from Moran, who represents many employees of Kansas City-based Cerner and has been quieter about the system’s flaws than Democrats on the Senate panel and his GOP counterparts in the House.

House Democrats want better management and oversight of big VA projects

On March 22, Reps. Mark Takano of California and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick of Florida – the top Democrats on the House VA Committee and a subcommittee charged with oversight of the Oracle Cerner project, respectively – announced two separate bills that take a broader view of the VA’s challenges.

The House Democrats’ first piece of legislation would create a new position at the VA, under secretary for management, “to consolidate and standardize business functions” across the department. Their second bill would require the VA to commission independent assessments of four major modernization programs, including the effort to replace the department’s current electronic health record system.

“While I am encouraged by President Biden’s and Secretary McDonough’s efforts to make investments in our veterans a top priority in recent years, it is time we also invest in making sure that veterans and taxpayers are getting what they pay for – a modernized and efficiently managed VA,” Takano said in a statement.

House Republicans want to freeze the system’s rollout until local leaders approve – or scrap it altogether

Republicans on the House VA Committee – including Chairman Mike Bost of Ohio and Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, who chairs a key subcommittee – have so far taken the most hard-edged approach to the Oracle Cerner system’s problems. In January, they joined fellow GOP Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside and several others to introduce a bill that would halt the system’s rollout until the local and regional leaders of each VA medical center approve its launch.

Separately, Rosendale introduced a bill – which only Bost has co-sponsored so far – that would cancel the project altogether. While the bill backed by McMorris Rodgers and others appears to be a more moderate option, Oracle executive Ken Glueck told The Spokesman-Review in February it would be an even worse outcome for his company, because it would “kill” the project slowly.

In contrast to House Democrats and senators from both parties, the House Republicans have expressed openness to reverting to the VA’s existing electronic health record system, known as VistA, which is still used at all but five of the department’s 171 medical centers. Even if the Oracle Cerner system is eventually implemented across the VA health care system, the department will likely rely on VistA for at least several more years.

Can the ‘four corners’ find common ground?

Despite their differences, the bills introduced by Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have significant areas of overlap that could form the basis of bipartisan, bicameral legislation. But even if that happens, it isn’t likely to pass Congress and be signed into law by the president before the Oracle Cerner system is scheduled to launch in Michigan this summer.

The VA has shown more caution in recent months about continuing the system’s rollout. Meanwhile, Oracle executives have pledged to pour resources into improving the system’s flaws since the company acquired Cerner in a deal worth more than $28 billion last June. While lawmakers weigh the pros and cons of putting more taxpayer money into the project, the system continues to impact veterans and VA employees in the Inland Northwest, southern Oregon and central Ohio.