First site in embattled $16B Cerner VA project goes live

Dive Brief:

  • A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital went live with a new Cerner EHR platform over the weekend in a major step for the agency’s massive and embattled health IT modernization program.
  • The new EHR is up and running at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington, along with the center’s four outpatient clinics in Washington, Montana and Idaho and an operations center in Las Vegas, Cerner said Monday. The facility was initially scheduled to go live in March but was twice delayed.
  • It’s the first go-live for the beleaguered $16 billion technology project, which has been dogged by delays, management turnover, snowballing spending and operational issues since it launched in 2018.

Dive Insight:

The go-live is a major milestone for the VA in its decadeslong effort to modernize its health IT infrastructure. It’s now the first time that three federal departments — the VA, Department of Defense and U.S. Coast Guard — have used the same EHR system, Cerner said.

VA launched the $10 billion project in May 2018 to migrate its health data from its customized VistA platform to a unified Cerner EHR, and align with the DOD, which has already started using Cerner’s MHS Genesis platform.

The project has faced myriad challenges from the start, including the departure of top health IT officials and rising costs. Spending on it jumped from $10 billion to $16 billion to cover rising management and infrastructure needs.

The VA Office of the Inspector General said in April that the VA hadn’t properly prepared for the project, and its extensive hospital and outpatient facility network needed significant upgrades to their physical and IT infrastructures before it would be ready for a new EHR system. That lack of readiness contributed to delays and jeopardized the EHR implementation, OIG said.

And the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be another stressor, upending the project’s planned implementation schedule. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in early April directed his office to reallocate resources to managing the coronavirus pandemic in what was the second major delay this year, following a pause in February after testing of the new system at Mann-Grandstaff sparked some usability concerns.

Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Technology Modernization Subcommittee, said he was “cautiously optimistic” the Saturday go-live would be a success.

“Tomorrow’s initial go-live is the beginning of a long journey, and in all likelihood the challenges will become more numerous moving forward,” Banks said in a Friday statement.

The project restarted in August. VA, which operates 170 hospitals and more than 1,000 outpatient sites, says it plans to have the system in place nationwide by 2028. The goal is to make VA facilities fully interoperable with the DOD, linking the records of current and past service members to promote continuity of care.