Veterans Affairs officials are downplaying a technology problem that forced its new electronic medical records system offline at a Washington state medical center last week, but lawmakers say the event raises more concerns as the department prepares to deploy it to new sites.
Last Thursday afternoon, the director of the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center told employees in an email to stop using the new health record system because of emerging problems. “Assume all electronic patient data is corrupted/inaccurate,” he wrote.
The action, first reported by the Washington Spokesman-Review, halted routine services such as filling prescriptions, conducting laboratory tests and even delaying some medical appointments.
VA officials said the technical issues were corrected by Friday morning, about 20 hours after the problem began. In a statement, department press secretary Terrence Hayes said no patient safety issues were detected because of the outage.
“Recognizing that system outages, though rare, can occur at facilities across the country, VA has worked with its vendor and established standard procedures for staff to follow that limit the impact on productivity and patient care,” he said.
The department said only 205 patient records were affected by the problem, and all of the issues were temporary. The department said there was no permanent loss or corruption of data, despite the local director’s initial message.
But the problem comes just a few weeks before the controversial electronic health records system is scheduled to deploy to the VA medical center in Walla Walla, Wash., followed a month later with a further expansion into Ohio.
Last week, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., reiterated her request to delay the Walla Walla deployment “until the VA can ensure the facility can maintain the highest levels of service for our veterans.”
Officials said the Mann-Grandstaff outage was caused by a database update performed incorrectly. VA leaders said the department has “downtime procedures” for staff to follow when the system is not accessible, though it appears local officials may have gone further to limit operations when they occurred.
McMorris Rodgers said she planned to meet with VA Secretary Denis McDonough this week to “discuss the unresolved issues with the EHR and find out how an outage of this magnitude could happen.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called the system failure “absolutely unacceptable,”
“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,” she said in a statement. “This is about patient safety and it needs to get fixed.”
Several lawmakers have suggested halting or canceling the health records rollout in recent months as problems with the system have emerged.
In 2017, then-President Donald Trump announced the plan to put all veteran health care files on the Cerner Millennium software platform to bring VA and Defense Department records onto the same system for the first time. The 10-year, $16-billion project immediately drew scrutiny because of the size and scope of the effort.
Last summer, McDonough halted the system deployment after reports of significant problems at Mann-Grandstaff, The VA Inspector General criticized the initial rollout of the new software there as chaotic, with insufficient time for training and practice before staff began using it.
After a four-month review, McDonough announced a modified deployment and training schedule for the new records system.
He also defended the overall goals of the project, and said that his research into the work showed no reason to believe that the Cerner system was unsuitable or unadaptable to the VA network.
Hayes said following last week’s outage, patients have resumed “uninterrupted, high-quality care” at the facility.
During an American Legion event on Saturday, VA Assistant Under Secretary for Health Dr. Carolyn Clancy described the incident as “not a stellar performance on the part of the vendor” and said department officials would be meeting with the contractors this week to avoid similar problems in the future.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.