VA’s new EHR hits another outage, as agency reconsiders FY 2024 request for project

The VA on Tuesday experienced a systemwide outage of its Oracle-Cerner EHR that’s currently running at five sites.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has dealt with another outage of its new Electronic Health Record, just days after declaring an indefinite pause of the system’s rollout.

The VA on Tuesday experienced a systemwide outage of its Oracle-Cerner EHR that’s currently running at five sites. The outage also impacted the Defense Department and Coast Guard, which are much further ahead with deployment of the system.

The VA, in a memo to staff obtained by Federal News Network, said agency clinicians trying to use the Oracle-Cerner EHR’s PowerChart medical record system were “experiencing failures and cannot serve veterans in day-to-day operations.”

“Performance degradation is impacting end-users. End users are experiencing slowness, freezing errors,” the memo states.

VA spokesman Gary Kunich said in a statement that Tuesday’s outage began “when one of the databases in the federal EHR became unresponsive due to a failed background process.”

“Normally the other databases would compensate, but in this instance, they were not able to do so and the entire database cluster had to be restarted.”

Kunich said the root cause — or causes — of the incident “remain under investigation. “

“Recovery from this event took more time than usual due to issues encountered when restarting the system,” he said.

The Spokesman-Review first reported the outage Tuesday evening.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that the EHR outage lasted for 224 minutes.

The Oracle-Cerner EHR also experienced a five-hour outage across the VA, DoD and Coast Guard on April 17. The outage stemmed from a significant upgrade added to the EHR over the weekend, meant to improve database capability and failover capability.

Prior to last week’s outage and this week’s outage, the VA saw a seven-month streak of no outages with the EHR system. McDonough said the VA has now “reset that back to zero.”

“That doesn’t mean across the system it was functioning perfectly, even,” McDonough told the subcommittee on military Construction, veterans affairs and related agencies. “So I am extraordinarily frustrated with this. I know our providers and our veterans in Washington and in Oregon and in Ohio are extraordinarily frustrated with this.”

The VA announced Friday that it won’t schedule additional deployments of the Oracle-Cerner EHR until it’s confident that the system is highly functioning at the five VA sites already using it.

The Oracle-Cerner EHR system is running in Spokane, Washington; Walla Walla, Washington; White City, Oregon; Roseburg, Oregon; and Columbus, Ohio.

“The whole point of this reset is clear away everything else [and] let’s focus on the five [sites]. Let’s get it right and then we’ll talk about onward deployment,” McDonough said.

The leadership of the House and Senate VA Committees supports the agency’s decision to pause the EHR rollout until underlying problems are addressed.

Some lawmakers, however, remain wary about what VA can accomplish during this reset hasn’t been done or attempted in the last two prolonged pauses in EHR go-lives.

“The main difference is that we’ve said very clearly that we’re not doing to try to do both of these things at the same time — namely, continue to prepare for further deployment and make it right in Spokane, Walla Walla, White City, Roseburg and Columbus,” McDonough said.

“The bottom line is we are going to invest in those five sites to make sure that we get it right, to make sure that we know this is get-it-right-able,” he added.

McDonough said the VA received an estimated $400 million in fiscal 2023 appropriations for the EHR modernization project that it probably won’t need, in light of its decision to put new go-lives on hold. He said the EHR reset may also impact the agency’s fiscal 2024 budget request.

“We’ll want to work through the specifics on the FY 2024 request. But the bottom line is, I think it stands to reason, that request will look different,” he said.

The VA’s 2024 budget request proposes a $1.9 billion budget for the continued rollout of the Oracle-Cerner EHR. That’s about a 16% increase from current spending levels.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she remains concerned about “very serious patient and safety concerns,” but supports continued go-lives once the five sites using the Oracle-Cerner EHR show improvement.

“I do support efforts to move forward, only after you are confident about the safety and the effectiveness of the system,” Murray said.

A key lawmaker, however, says she’s lost confidence in the Oracle-Cerner EHR rollout moving forward.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), whose district covers Spokane and Walla Walla, said in a statement Tuesday that the EHR rollout “has been a complete failure” that has “caused serious harm to patients, devastated morale amongst employees and providers, and created a crisis of confidence for veterans.”

McMorris Rodgers said she now supports a bill that would pull the plug on VA’s Oracle-Cerner rollout. The bill is led by the Chairman of the House VA’s Committee’s Technology Modernization Subcommittee Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.)

McMorris Rodgers said her concerns over the EHR rollout intensified after reports from the VA inspector general’s office found 149 veterans were harmed by the system.

“I have long supported the goal of modernizing our health record system to better care for our nation’s heroes. Unfortunately, despite billions of dollars and every possible opportunity for improvement, it’s become abundantly clear that there is no coming back from the mess the Department of Veterans Affairs has made with this deeply broken system,” McMorris Rodgers said. “It’s time to pull the plug. We need to go back to a system that works immediately and deliver on our promise to give veterans in Eastern Washington the best care our country has to offer.”

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