Tech glitches at one Veterans Affairs site raise concerns about a nationwide rollout

Darius Tahir
Kaiser Health News (TNS)
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool/Abaca Press/TNS)

Spokane, Washington, was supposed to be the center of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ tech reinvention, the first site in the agency’s decadelong project to change its medical records software. But one morning in early March, the latest system malfunction made some clinicians snap.

At Spokane’s Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, the records system — developed by Cerner Corp., based in North Kansas City, Missouri — went down. Staffers, inside the hospital and its outpatient facilities, were back to relying on pen and paper. Computerized schedules were inaccessible. Physicians couldn’t enter new orders or change patients’ medications.

By the next day, the electronic health records were only partially available. Dozens of records remained “sequestered,” meaning that doctors and nurses struggled to update patient charts.

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The snafu, the latest in a series at Mann-Grandstaff, heightened Spokane medical staff members’ frustration with a system that has been problematic since it was installed a year and a half ago. The VA said no patients had been harmed because of the problems.

But physicians on the ground there said it’s only a matter of time before serious safety problems — those causing injury or death — emerge, pointing to the program’s ongoing weaknesses amid VA leadership’s full-bore push toward implementation nationwide. One provider said she was glad she didn’t have a relative in Mann-Grandstaff.

The one-two punch of a dangerous outage and staff grievances is the latest setback in the VA’s more than $16 billion effort to upgrade its record-keeping technology. The issues have at times forced clinicians to see fewer patients and file tens of thousands of requests for help to Cerner with patient-safety problems, congressional and agency watchdog reviews show.

If those issues multiply over the vast VA system — which employs more than a quarter-million workers and serves 6.3 million active patients — it could create rampant patient-safety and productivity problems. Despite the VA’s goals of using the technology upgrade to provide seamless records for patients from enlistment in the military until discharge, the doctors and clinicians who spoke to KHN are convinced that the problems experienced in Spokane will be repeated again and again.

The records system, scheduled for deployment at multiple VA facilities in the Pacific Northwest in the coming weeks and months, most recently rolled out at Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla, Washington.

Both Cerner and Mann-Grandstaff officials declined to comment and referred KHN to officials at VA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“If it’s a total meltdown” in Walla Walla, said Katie Purswell, the American Legion’s director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation, it’s a problem for the department and its decade-long initiative. Initial impressions from staffers are positive, but the issues in Spokane appeared over the course of weeks after the system was turned on.

The distress was particularly acute in early March. On March 2, Cerner turned on a software update to a database containing patient identification information. Problems emerged the next morning. In the record of a patient who was checking in for surgery, staff members discovered incorrect data, including gender information for a different patient. About an hour later, a staffer from the national VA’s medical records office told some clinicians at Mann-Grandstaff to “log out.”

Robert Fischer, Mann-Grandstaff’s medical center director, sent a dire warning later that morning. “Assume all electronic data is corrupted/inaccurate,” Fischer said in an email. He urged clinicians to limit orders for lab work, imaging studies, and medications. The facility shifted to “downtime procedures,” meaning a reliance on paper.

Some staffers didn’t absorb the late-morning message and continued entering information in the mixed-up records, adding to the stew of erroneous data.

According to information provided to Congress later by the VA, Cerner had informed Mann-Grandstaff of a “complete degradation” the night before — leading to questions from staffers about why it took until late morning the next day to shut down the system. Agency spokesperson Erin Crowe told KHN there wasn’t any delay in notifying staff.

Problems stretched into the following week. Some records — 70 as of March 10, according to a briefing provided to Congress — remained unusable while auditors tried to ascertain what information had been mixed in from other charts. This left clinicians in some instances unable to keep track of patients’ care. Doctors said it became a confusing and chaotic environment. They couldn’t, for example, help patients refill prescriptions.

Members of Congress are concerned — not only about the outage but also VA’s explanations about it. In a letter to agency leadership, the leading Republicans on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the subcommittee overseeing technology, Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois and Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, expressed worries the agency was “soft-pedal(ing)” its communications and argued that veterans were misled by assurances that records had been corrected.

The outage deepened unhappiness at Mann-Grandstaff. Clinicians there were already frazzled by a deeply buggy system. Downtime was common, a congressional aide told KHN.

A March 17 VA inspector general report documented nearly 39,000 requests for technical help or improvement since the October 2020 deployment of the new records system. Cerner employees often closed requests without resolving the underlying problems, the report said. Mann-Grandstaff staffers became disengaged or devised shortcuts to bypass the malfunctioning software, the inspector general wrote — each a potential root of patient-safety incidents.

The department said the shortcuts — or workarounds — aren’t its policy. “Workarounds are not authorized nor encouraged,” Crowe said.

The Biden administration tried to overhaul the software initiative, putting the program on hiatus before installing new leadership in the medical records office at the end of 2021. But by then, low morale had sunk in. “People in Spokane VA are … demoralized and unhappy,” Rep. Frank Mrvan, D-Ind., chair of the House subcommittee focused on the VA’s technology modernization programs, told agency leaders during a November congressional hearing. He said staffers told him they felt as though they were beating their heads against a wall to make things function.

Other observers shared Mrvan’s concerns.

Purswell of the American Legion questioned whether appropriate steps are being taken to prepare the Walla Walla facility and its staff for the technology rollout. She asked whether staffers feel as if the Cerner system has been thrust upon them or are excited about the change.

Whether the VA has been persuasive about the benefits of the program is unclear. “I think it’s incumbent on us to demonstrate it’s not a loss,” said Dr. Terry Adirim, the leader of the VA office in charge of implementing the new records technology. “We might have dropped the ball on explaining what a benefit this is.”

Indeed, Adirim conducted a virtual town hall meeting March 21 for veterans in the Walla Walla area — where she was pressed about the problems in Spokane. “If Spokane has been a year figuring this out, why is this moving forward?” one questioner asked, expressing a point made frequently during the call. Adirim said the VA had made “thousands of changes” since the initial rollout.

Medical staffers at the Spokane and Walla Walla VA facilities are part of informal networks sharing their often-negative experiences about the program despite a perception among staff members that dissent will hurt their careers.

Adirim thinks negative feelings can be addressed by stepping up technical support. She also said training programs have been overhauled since the deployment in Spokane. Bottom line: The VA is proceeding.

“People want to revert back to what they did before,” Adirim said, but that’s not going to happen.

— KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.