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The Department of Veterans Affairs has suspended the rollout of its new multibillion-dollar electronic health records system until June 2023 to allow more time to overcome recurring problems with the computer program at several hospitals across the country, agency officials announced Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has suspended the rollout of its new multibillion-dollar electronic health records system until June 2023 to allow more time to overcome recurring problems with the computer program at several hospitals across the country, agency officials announced Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. (U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs has suspended the rollout of its new multibillion-dollar electronic health records system until June 2023 to allow more time to overcome recurring problems with the computer program at several hospitals across the country, agency officials announced Thursday.

“Right now, the Oracle Cerner electronic health record system is not delivering for veterans or VA health care providers – and we are holding Oracle Cerner and ourselves accountable to get this right,” Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Donald Remy said in a prepared statement. “We are delaying all future deployments of the new EHR while we fully assess performance and address every concern. Veterans and clinicians deserve a seamless, modernized health record system, and we will not rest until they get it.”

The announcement followed the death of a veteran in September at the Chalmers P. Wylie Veterans Outpatient Clinic in Columbus, Ohio, which was reported by The Spokesman-Review, a newspaper in Spokane, Wash.

“Patient safety is VA’s top priority, and we are investigating the patient’s death, which occurred at a community hospital,” according to a VA statement issued Friday. “Currently, this investigation is ongoing and there has not been any determination made on the root cause of this incident.”

There was also another records system outage that affected pharmacy services on Oct. 7 for almost 10 hours, according to Fed Scoop, a federal technology website.

The VA said the outage impacted all Defense Department, Coast Guard and VA sites that now use the new records system from the company Oracle Cerner. The agency said Oracle Cerner engineers are working on fixing the problem, but this outage was not the reason for extending the delay on the records system rollout.

The VA had originally scheduled to launch the new records system in July at the Boise VA Medical Center but moved it to 2023 after the VA inspector general released a report that revealed the system caused harm to 149 VA patients.

So far, the new records system has been launched at five of the VA’s 166 health care facilities. In some cases, additional launches at some facilities have been postponed because of ongoing problems with records system, along with delays caused by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

At the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Wash., where the system was launched first in October 2020, issues included unauthorized and inaccurate medication orders, patients' name and gender errors, issues in scheduling primary care appointments, misdirected links to video medical appointments and lost referrals.

In the meantime, the VA said it will continue to focus on the five facilities where the new records system has been launched. The agency said it also will send letters to veterans who had been impacted by the system’s issues, inquiring whether they had experienced delays in medications, appointments, referrals, or test results. If they have experienced any issues, the VA said the veteran should reach out to the agency and expect someone to follow up with them within five business days to resolve the issue.

“When it comes to delivering the quality health care our nation’s veterans have earned, we have to hit the mark the first time around,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in a prepared statement. “That’s why I’ll continue holding VA and Oracle Cerner’s feet to the fire in fixing system-wide issues so existing facilities and any future rollouts guarantee VA health care staff have the tools to provide veterans safe, timely care.”

The VA originally signed a $10 billion contract with Cerner in May 2018 to overhaul the agency's health records system and make it compatible with the Defense Department’s system. However, the cost of the project later increased to about $16 billion.

Last October, Paul Brubaker, acting principal deputy assistant secretary and deputy chief information officer at VA's Office of Information Technology, told House lawmakers that the agency contracted with the nonprofit Institute for Defense Analysis to calculate an estimate of costs of the Cerner electronic health record system. A review issued in July by the institute estimated the implementation of the electronic health record system would cost nearly $39 billion in 13 years. The estimate also included more than $17 billion to sustain the system.

Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the new electronic health record should not be rolled out anywhere else until Oracle Cerner fixes its problems.

“When I visited [VA facilities in] Walla Walla [Wash.] in July and Columbus [Ohio] in September, the staff made it clear that this flawed system is making their jobs more difficult and crippling the delivery of care to veterans, and I have heard the same thing from the other sites,” Bost said in a prepared statement. “Unfortunately, these delays are nothing new. VA and Oracle must prove that this time is different, and I won’t allow them to continue throwing good money after bad.”

Mike Sicilia, executive vice president for industries at Oracle, which purchased Cerner in June, told the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs in July that he reviewed the system's problems. Oracle took over Cerner's electronic health record contract with the VA, Defense Department and the Coast Guard and established a command center led by Oracle's senior engineers.

Sicilia said at last month’s Senate Appropriations Committee that Oracle hosted a summit with the VA, Defense Department, Federal Electronic Health Record Modernization Office, and Leidos Holdings Inc. to discuss the federal electronic health record system's performance and its problems. Sicilia said the meeting led to plans for the system and that Oracle sent a letter to the VA detailing the plans and a roadmap.

Sicilia also said Oracle is working with the VA to revamp training for employees to learn to use the electronic health records system. He also said he still thinks the company can still launch a safe rollout at the rest of the VA’s facilities in 10 years as it was originally contemplated.

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Sara Samora is a Marine Corps veteran and the veterans reporter for Stars and Stripes. A native Texan, she previously worked at the Houston Business Journal and the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. She also serves on the boards of Military Veterans in Journalism and the Houston Association of Hispanic Media Professionals.

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