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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

McMorris Rodgers bill would require VA hospitals to hold regular town hall meetings

The Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

WASHINGTON – Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers on Friday will introduce legislation to require the Department of Veterans Affairs to hold quarterly town hall meetings at each of the nation’s 171 VA hospitals.

The Spokane Republican’s bill will be filed two weeks after VA leaders announced they would stop the nationwide rollout of a flawed computer system that has been tested at Spokane’s Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center since 2020. VA officials have linked the electronic health record system to the deaths of four patients and scores of other cases of harm, prompting outrage from local veterans who have called for greater transparency from the federal agency.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs has completely lost sight of its sole mission: Serving veterans,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “The total lack of accountability around the disastrous rollout of the electronic health record system made that abundantly clear.”

VA Secretary Denis McDonough visited Mann-Grandstaff in April 2021, shortly after he took office and halted the system’s rollout while VA officials conducted a safety review. Despite reports of many problems caused by the system in Spokane, the department’s leaders resumed its deployment, beginning with Walla Walla’s VA medical center in March 2022 and followed by facilities in Columbus, Ohio, and White City and Roseburg, Oregon.

Then-Deputy Secretary Donald Remy visited Mann-Grandstaff in April 2022 while VA officials downplayed concerns with the system in a congressional hearing. McDonough visited the VA clinic in Coeur d’Alene, which is affiliated with the Spokane hospital and uses the same computer system, in July 2022, just days after the VA Office of Inspector General revealed that the department’s leaders had failed to disclose nearly 150 cases of harm linked to the system.

In 2018, the Trump administration skipped the usual competitive bidding process and gave a $10 billion contract to Cerner, a health technology company, to replace the VA’s aging but highly specialized electronic health record system with Cerner’s system, which the Defense Department had purchased three years earlier. The tech giant Oracle acquired Cerner for more than $28 billion in June 2022 and is in the process of rebranding the smaller company, which is now called Oracle Cerner and eventually will be known as Oracle Health.

“It’s time for the VA to drastically change its approach by putting the veteran at the forefront of every decision they make,” McMorris Rodgers said. “That starts with actually showing up and listening to their concerns, which the VA has avoided for far too long. This legislation will change that once and for all by making sure our nation’s heroes’ voices are heard loud and clear as we continue our work to roll out the red carpet for them.”

The bill would require each VA hospital’s medical director to attend quarterly town hall meetings along with the director of the regional office that oversees the medical center, known as a Veterans Integrated Service Network. If either director couldn’t attend, a designated representative would have to attend on their behalf.

The legislation will be referred to the House Veterans Affairs Committee, of which McMorris Rodgers is not a member. It would need support from Senate Democrats to become law.

Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who sits on the Senate VA Committee, also has criticized the Oracle Cerner system. In an April 26 hearing, Murray told McDonough its rollout in her state had been “an ongoing disaster,” and the VA secretary said he was “extraordinarily frustrated” with the system’s performance.