WASHINGTON – The head of the Department of Veterans Affairs said his agency would ‘reinvent’ its approach to a new health records system being tested in Spokane after surveillance reports found flawed deployment was hurting productivity and threatened patient safety.

Calling the findings of an internal review he ordered in March “extremely disappointing,” VA secretary Denis McDonough told the Senate Veterans Committee on Wednesday that he would not let other hospitals adopt the system until Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center issues are resolved. . But he declined to say how much longer hospital staff and the more than 30,000 veterans they serve in Washington, Idaho and Montana will face issues that have left staff demoralized and veterans without their orders.

The VA chief said the problems were caused by mismanagement and planning, and not by the software itself, which was developed by Cerner Corporation after the company was awarded a $ 10 billion contract on 10 years in 2018.

“Most of the challenges weren’t technology breakdowns, nor the great people at Mann-Grandstaff who did their best under the worst of circumstances,” he said. “Instead, the missteps were ours at VA and Cerner, and now that we’ve identified these issues, we can fix them.”

The Trump administration awarded the contract to Cerner without going through a competitive bidding process because the Kansas City-based company was already developing an electronic health records system, or EHR, for the Pentagon to manage the records. health care for active-duty members of the military, although this system caused similar problems when deployed from Fairchild Air Force Base and three other bases in Washington.

Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington who sits on the VA committee, pointed out to McDonough that she raised the same concerns about mixed prescriptions and delayed care when Cerner won the contract in 2018. The official value of the contract has since been raised to $ 16 billion, but a report released by the VA’s Office of the Inspector General last week found the agency underestimated the true cost by more than $ 5 billion.

Murray told McDonough, a former White House chief of staff whom President Joe Biden chose to head the notoriously heavy-handed agency that runs the nation’s largest hospital network, she understood he was not responsible for. defective deployment but expected him to fix it quickly.

“I know you inherited it,” Murray said. “But I know we confirmed you for this position because of your management skills and your ability to solve tough problems.”

The GOP members of the committee were also understanding. Senator Tommy Tuberville, a Republican from Alabama who has spent most of his career as a college football coach, likened McDonough’s position to resuming a football program and the possibility of winning without a quarterback or an offensive line.

A separate report by the agency’s Inspector General also released last week found that the VA and Cerner did not adequately train Mann-Grandstaff employees before rolling out the new system last October.

In a particularly damning conclusion, the Independent Watchdog reported that the VA office responsible for managing the EHR deployment changed the data to show that 89% of employees had passed proficiency tests, when in fact less than half of these people – 44% – had demonstrated their mastery of the new system.

Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana who chairs the committee, told The Spokesman-Review after the hearing that the Trump administration pushed to deploy the new EHR in Spokane before it was ready, officials at VA calling the October deployment to Spokane “flawless.” “

“I think this whole project was rushed because it was rolled out two or three weeks before the election to make the president look good,” Tester said. “And this rush, I think, has cost us dearly. “

The Inspector General’s reports also revealed that the VA and Cerner had not built the physical infrastructure necessary to accommodate the new system, including rooms to house new servers. Murray cited a case where a server in Spokane was covered with a tarp to prevent a water leak from destroying it.

McDonough told senators his department will not go ahead with the EHR deployment – next deployments are scheduled to VA medical centers in Washington, Idaho and Oregon and the upper Midwest – until that each of these hospitals demonstrate that they have both the physical infrastructure and the training they need. to implement it.

He also said he would reorganize the organizational structure to handle the effort and suggested that those responsible for tampering with the test data could lose their jobs, although he said no VA staff ‘had been dismissed again because of the problems detected by the internal review.

Congress will continue to monitor the deployment of the EHR at Mann-Grandstaff during a House VA committee hearing next Wednesday.

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