Pull the plug on Oracle Cerner in the VA! Two House Representatives urge return to VistA, send bill to Veterans’ Affairs committee

Hold your hand up if this comes as a complete surprise. A Congressman who was the top Republican on a subcommittee overseeing technology at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has evidently had quite enough of the Oracle Cerner problems in implementing Cerner Millenium. Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana has introduced H.R.608, titled “To terminate the Electronic Health Record Modernization Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs”. It would pull the plug on Oracle within 180 days, dissolve the VA Electronic Health Record Modernization Integration Office, and restore VistA/CPRS. In other words, back to the drawing board.

It was co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois who is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, where the bill was referred on 27 January. Rep. Rosendale is now the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Technology Modernization. 

This follows on last week’s two-day slowdown of both the VA and MHS Genesis systems, last summer’s Congressional hearings with the roasting that Oracle Health’s head Mike Sicilia and VA heads received over the OIG report on the ‘unknown queue’ that created 149 adverse events, and October’s delay in further Oracle Cerner rollouts in the VA from January 2023 to June.

While the likelihood that the bill would pass both House and Senate, and be signed into law, is low, H.R. 608 is one very heavy and clever cudgel for getting Oracle–and the VA staff involved with the conversion–to Pay Attention! Fix The Problems! There’s also leverage far beyond the VA EHR. Oracle has multiple Federal contracts which could be jeopardized or defunded. Stay tuned to further developments in VA’s Tower of Trouble and Oracle’s Mound of (Acquired) Misery.  Hat tip to HISTalk for the heads up, actually obtaining a screenshot of part of the bill which has not yet been posted on Congress.gov.  FCW.

Oracle’s ‘new sheriff’ moving to fix Cerner EHR implementation in the VA: the Senate hearing

Last week’s (20 July) hearing on the VA’s increasingly wobbly EHR transition from VistA to Cerner showcased Oracle’s executive vice president for industries Mike Sicilia. His testimony to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs had a heaping helping of ‘the new sheriff has arrived in Dodge City’.  As of six weeks ago, after the Transformational Big Vision kvelling faded, Cerner’s painful stumbles became Oracle’s VA Migraine [TTA 21 July, 21 June]. Cerner is now part of the Oracle Global Health business unit that falls under him.

First, the pledge made in his statement: “Unlike Cerner alone, Oracle brings an order of magnitude more engineering resources and scale to this formidable challenge.” After outlining the work that Oracle has done for CDC and NIH on Covid-19, he testified:

You should consider that in effect the VA, the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Coast Guard obtained a new, vastly more resourced technology partner overnight to augment Cerner. We also strongly believe in this mission and consider it not only a contractual obligation but a moral one to improve healthcare for our nation’s veterans and their caregivers. We intend to exceed expectations. 

Of the list of 36 issues detailed by the committee to VA Deputy Secretary Remy, Sicilia condensed them into three main areas: performance, design, and functionality. The concrete moves are:

  • Oracle will move the implementation to the cloud and rewrite Cerner’s pharmacy module, completing both tasks within 6-9 months
  • They have set up a ‘war room’ consisting of Oracle’s top talent of senior engineers and developers, working on the entire DoD/VA EHR systems as priority #1, with the first order of work a top-to-bottom analysis. While integrating with the Cerner team, the statement makes it clear that Oracle “brings an order of magnitude larger engineering team than Cerner”.
  • The Cerner EHR system is currently running on a dated architecture with technology that is in some cases two decades old and thus will be moved within 6-9 months to Oracle’s Generation 2 cloud. (That must be reassuring to thousands of hospitals and practices!)
  • Shortly after the closing, Oracle fixed a database bug that caused 13 of the last 15 outages, and as of last week there were no further outages. 
  • Testifying on the status of the “unknown queue”,  he stated it was designed to account for human error rather than to mitigate it, so it will be redesigned–it will be automated more on the front end and on the back end will have a better process.
  • Oracle will “start over” with the Cerner pharmacy module, rebuilding it as a showcase of a cloud-optimized web application.

VA’s EHR leaders also testified at the Senate hearing. Terry Adirim, Executive Director of the Electronic Health Record Modernization Integration Office at the VA, confirmed that unsurprisingly, Cerner’s next rollouts scheduled for the Boise VA Medical Center and other centers have been postponed indefinitely due to multiple ongoing system stability issues: change control and testing; challenges with increased capacity; basic functionality; its resilience design, and its response in last resort disaster situations. These specific issues overlapped but were more specific than those covered in Sicilia’s statement, which focused on the actions that Oracle would take.

Adirim and Kurt DelBene, the VA’s CIO, were roasted by the senators as painting a “very rosy picture”. The OIG report itemized at least 60 recommendations before going further. Adirim, to his credit, noted that DoD had similar stability issues in its system which was a warning, but the VA’s system is far more complex and care oriented than DoD which presumably exacerbated those issues. FedScoop and especially HISTalk’s Monday Morning Update 7/25/22