ST. PETERSBURG - Responding to mounting criticism, Veterans Affairs officials said Monday that hundreds of workers at Bay Pines VA Medical Center will be retrained on a pilot computer system blamed for numerous problems at the hospital.
During a congressional hearing at Bay Pines, officials testified that after spending $249-million over five years, they recently discovered hospital workers were not properly trained.
At times, the crowd of about 200 people in the medical auditorium responded with laughter to the answers provided by VA officials and contractor BearingPoint.
"Did we go live too soon? In hindsight, I would say the answer is yes," William Campbell, VA assistant secretary for management, testified during the three-hour hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
"We grossly underestimated the difficulty in training the work force for the new system," Campbell said at the hearing, chaired by Sen. Bob Graham, the ranking Democrat on the panel.
Asked by Graham why the computer system failed, even after an internal VA review showed it was 98 percent ready before Bay Pines switched over on Oct. 6, Campbell said, "That's one of the mysteries I have to find out."
Bay Pines, the second-busiest VA hospital in the country, is the target of multiple federal inquiries. Investigators are looking into the computer program, and into allegations of mismanagement.
Known as the Core Financial and Logistics System, or CoreFLS, the computer program was developed to track and control finances, vendor payouts and supply inventories within the VA.
But hospital officials say it doesn't work. They say three software programs that make up the system do not communicate with one another.
Administrators blame surgery cancellations on CoreFLS, saying they can't keep surgical supplies in stock. Hospital staff also say they cannot keep track of hospital finances, and vendors complain that they are not getting paid.
Marty Traxler, chief of the pilot computer program at Bay Pines, has said about 700 people use the computer system at the hospital.
Before it was installed at Bay Pines, Traxler said, hospital staff was directed to a Web site and told to become familiar with the program budgeted at $472-million.
He said workers did not get hands-on training till November.
At the hearing Monday, Campbell and Richard Roberts, senior BearingPoint executive, disagreed with hospital administrators who say CoreFLS is flawed.
Campbell and Roberts insisted the software has been proved to work in other projects. They blamed the computer problems on the limited training of workers.
During In the hearing, Graham hammered away at the amount of training that BearingPoint gave the hospital staff.
He wanted to know if, after the training, there was a way of assessing whether the staff was capable of using the system.
The answer was no.
John O'Connor, the CoreFLS project director in Washington, testified that the CoreFLS team was writing an exam that would test staff readiness on the computer program. He said the test would be ready in 60 to 90 days.
After the hearing, Graham said BearingPoint could face sanctions because it failed to properly train hospital staff on CoreFLS, as required in the contract.
He said the problems underscore a lack of communication at Bay Pines. He noted, for example, that while staff members did not believe they got proper training on CoreFLS, their concerns never reached senior CoreFLS officials.
Graham said he was not convinced that the problems with CoreFLS would be fixed by retraining.
"We are closely monitoring the changes VA takes in order for the system to work," he said.
A preliminary investigation by the VA inspector general released Friday said the VA failed to properly document the way the CoreFLS contract was awarded.
It also said that Bay Pines officials knew for years that a lack of surgical equipment and lax procedures put patients at risk.
During the hearing, however, hospital director Smith Jenkins and Dr. Elwood Headley, the VA regional chief, testified that they did not become aware of problems with surgical supplies until last month.
Others testifying at the hearing included Dr. Sam Carranza, a lung specialist at Bay Pines, who described Bay Pines administrators as arrogant and dishonest.
He said it was commonplace for management to belittle staff, and that physician input as a rule was not taken into account in setting hospital policy.
Veterans groups also praised the quality of care at Bay Pines and expressed concerns about the computer system. They blamed most of the problems on a lack of funding to the VA.