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VA yanks troubled computer system

The $472-million computer system being tested at Bay Pines just doesn't work, veterans officials say.

By PAUL DE LA GARZA and STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published July 27, 2004


ST. PETERSBURG - The Department of Veterans Affairs has decided to pull the plug on a $472-million trial computer system at Bay Pines VA Medical Center because it doesn't work.

Technicians immediately will begin switching the hospital back to the old system by Sept. 30, the end of the VA's fiscal year, Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, said Monday.

Young said the VA would continue to test the experimental computer in a "controlled environment ... to see whether it has any value to the VA system."

He acknowledged that the project's future is questionable, noting Congress planned to slash its funding. The VA has spent close to $265-million of $472-million budgeted for the program, according to federal investigators.

Florida Sen. Bob Graham reacted with vehemence.

"At a time when VA's health care system is stretched to the limit, it is outrageous - simply outrageous - to waste millions upon millions of dollars on a failed computer system," he said.

VA spokeswoman Cynthia Church did not respond Monday to several messages seeking comment.

Installed last October, the troubled computer system was designed to track finances and inventory for the VA's $64-billion nationwide budget. Bay Pines was one test site; other hospitals were scheduled to follow.

But the system was plagued with problems from the start. When it struggled to order supplies, surgeries were delayed. At one point, employees bought their own plastic gloves to draw blood. Staff members complained that they could not keep track of hospital expenditures.

As recently as last month, hospital administrators told congressional investigators that they could not account for almost $300,000.

The computer system and allegations of mismanagement at Bay Pines have been the subject of multiple federal inquiries as a result of stories in the St. Petersburg Times.

Graham, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, launched his own investigation in February.

Committee investigators discovered that BearingPoint, the contractor charged with building the computer system, was paid a $227,620 "incentive bonus" for starting the Bay Pines test on schedule, despite warnings that the system wasn't ready.

"VA managers ... had no idea who completed the training and who did not," committee investigators wrote.

In a statement Monday, Graham lashed out at VA management.

"Just eight months ago, the contractor was given a performance bonus, and today we are told that they are literally pulling the plug on the system at Bay Pines. Where were the high-level managers who were supposed to be overseeing our taxpayers' dollars?"

Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that he wanted to know what the VA would do to recover taxpayers' money.

The VA had planned to roll out the pilot computer system, known as the Core Financial and Logistics System, or CoreFLS, nationwide last February.

But VA Secretary Anthony Principi put that plan on hold after stories in the Times chronicled flaws. Principi said he would decide how to proceed after investigations by the VA inspector general and a $500,000 assessment by Carnegie Mellon University.

Both reports have been completed but not released.

Two weeks ago, Principi said he would form an advisory committee to help him decide the fate of the computer system.

In documents submitted to Congress last month, the VA acknowledged for the first time that the computer system may never work.

"Instabilities of software ... are creating major barriers to efficient and effective work flow," the VA documents said. "This is due mostly to extraordinary amount of time needed to perform tasks, and inconsistent reliability of critical data and many reports derived from that data."

While Bay Pines' problems have thrown the VA's financial side into turmoil, computer software that runs clinical programs gets widespread praise in the medical community.

As one hospital executive put it in a recent issue of the Physician Executive trade journal: "If you fully involve yourself in the VA computerized record system, you would never go back to any other way of caring for patients."

That clinical software was developed slowly over the years by VA programmers, using a common computer language. The CoreFLS system was a blending of three commercial software packages, from different manufacturers, that must communicate with each other, as well as with various components of the homegrown clinical system.

Since February, five VA officials have quit or been reassigned as a result of problems with the computer system and mismanagement at Bay Pines.

Young, who has kept in close contact with Principi, said Principi decided to pull the plug on the financial system because it does not work.

Young said the VA did not know how long it would take to fix the troubled software.

"CoreFLS will not be used in any other VA center until a lot of the flaws that are there are solved," Young said.

VA officials told Graham's office that "they are still holding out the option, pending the advisory committee, of taking it to other facilities, including Tampa, Miami and the West Coast," said Graham spokesman Paul Anderson.

Anderson said VA officials did not say what standards CoreFLS would have to meet before any such expansion.

Young said Principi had not decided exactly how to test the computer in a lab setting. He said the VA wasn't scrapping the system because it already had bought the software.

Young said he did not know whether BearingPoint would play a role in the future of the computer system. He noted that the contract between the VA and the contractor is the subject of "serious investigations."

BearingPoint declined to comment.

Young said he did not know whether Bay Pines would suffer disruptions as technicians reinstall the old system.

However, in documents BearingPoint submitted to Congress this year, the contractor noted there would be problems if the trial computer was yanked late in the project.

"A fallback should only be considered during the initial month," BearingPoint wrote. Afterward, "fallback will become more complex and cumbersome."

Hospital staff have never embraced the trial computer system because of the software glitches.

On Monday, some were relieved at the news from Washington.

"I'm astonished at this kind of waste," said Dr. Perry Hudson, chief of urology. "It's up close to $300-million and generally speaking, that is the feeling of the staff."

[Last modified July 27, 2004, 01:00:27]


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