Serious safety issues regarding patient medications and mental health flags remain unresolved with the Department of Veterans Affairs new electronic health records system, according to a series of reports released by a federal watchdog on Thursday.

But VA officials said they are working through those issues as the department prepares to deploy the records system to new sites later this spring.

The controversy is just the latest complication for the $16-billion plan to shift VA health records onto the Cerner Millennium software platform, the same one used by Department of Defense medical offices.

When then-President Donald Trump announced the plan in 2017, the goal was to provide a seamless, lifelong medical record for service members starting from their day of enlistment to and continuing their post-military life.

But putting the system into place at VA has proven challenging, with numerous problems and frustrations emerging from the initial rollout of the system at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Washington in 2020. Last summer, VA Secretary Denis McDonough ordered a halt to the work so officials could evaluate and correct challenges that emerged there.

In the new reports, the VA Inspector General’s office details previously unreported issues with the new system, including mistakes in importing patient medication lists and orders, missing alerts regarding patient suicide risks, and difficulites in scheduling future medical appointments.

Researchers said that as of today, several of those serious issues remain unresolved.

“The Office of the Inspector General is concerned that deployment of the new electronic health record without resolution of the deficiencies presents risks to patient safety,” John Daigh, assistant inspector general for healthcare, wrote in the reports.

“Given the number of significant patient safety issues identified in this report, the office remains concerned about the ability of the new [records system] to support the delivery of high quality healthcare.”

In response, VA officials told the inspector general’s office that many of the issues have been resolved over the last year, and that the department hopes to have the rest addressed by early May.

They disputed several of the findings, saying that data was transferred correctly into the new system but may not have been displayed in the same ways as in the past, creating confusion among staff.

“VA anticipates that the number and nature of patient safety reports will fluctuate as potential patient safety events in areas such as care coordination and medication management are identified, reported, investigated and resolved,” Deputy VA Secretary Donald Remy wrote in response to the new findings.

VA leaders have acknowledged significant training failings in their initial rollout of the new records system, but said none of those issues undermined the fundamental viability of the Cerner software.

They’ve also said that the decision to deploy the system at limited locations at the start was designed to find and fix problems before the system is expanded to the entire VA medical system, which covers more than 9 million patients and nearly 400,000 staffers.

But the problematic rollout has drawn significant criticism from department staff and lawmakers, several of whom have questioned whether VA should move ahead with future deployment plans if existing problems aren’t fully resolved.

Earlier this month, the records system was taken offline for roughly 20 hours after officials found problems with data migration issues. The move disrupted operations at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, including filling prescriptions, conducting laboratory tests and delaying some medical appointments.

VA officials afterwards said there were no patient safety issues that resulted from the incident.

Under the adjusted rollout schedule, the medical records system is scheduled to be put in use in Walla Walla, Wash., later this month and at the VA medical center in Columbus, Ohio, at the end of April.

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.

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