- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2014

A Veterans Affairs medical center in Tennessee recently experienced power outages that delayed care and posed safety risks for patients and staff, contract documents show.

The VA hasn’t publicly discussed the recent power outages at its Mountain Home Medical Center, but officials referred to the situation in documents to approve an emergency no-bid contract to address the problem.

The VA’s Mountain Home medical center faced “full power outages,” which they said could cause damage to equipment “as well as endanger the safety of those on campus,” VA officials wrote in a three-page justification to support the contract, which was signed in June but only disclosed last week.

Contracting officials also noted that “multiple types of equipment have been damaged due to recent outages,” causing “safety issues for the employees and patients” as well as “delay in patient care.”

The medical center’s chief engineer, Kevin Milliken, said in an interview Monday that since signing the contract, officials have figured out the outages were due to equipment problems with the local utility. He also said the three brief outages never lasted more than a few minutes and never affected “critical” areas such as the emergency room or intensive care.

But he said the radiology department, where X-ray and MRI machines draw lots of power, went without electricity during the outages because officials weren’t sure if there was a short in the hospital’s system. They delayed turning power back on in the radiology department, fearing damage to the multimillion-dollar equipment.

Mr. Milliken said they restored power to radiology after about an hour.

Power outages are a long-standing problem for VA medical centers across the U.S., where several incidents proved far more serious than what occurred at the Mountain Home facility.

In a report to the Obama-Biden transition team in 2008, VA’s Office of Information and Technology blamed substandard physical infrastructure for IT equipment affecting electrical power, heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

The briefing memo cited a 2008 IT outage at the VA's medical center in Nashville that resulted in a lack of access to electronic health records for three days and the cancellation of patient medical appointments.

“Without special emphasis on and resources for these problems, VA will continue to experience IT outages similar to the one at the Nashville VA Medical Center,” officials wrote.

Last year, the VA’s medical center in Denver reportedly canceled outpatient appointments because of a power outage.

The VA’s Office of Inspector General previously has reported on outages at other medical centers, including a 23-hour outage affecting the VA’s “VistA” health information system in North Texas in 2009.

Even though the outage lasted barely a day, the review found patient care was “significantly impacted” as the staff reverted to documenting medication and appointments on paper forms. But those forms were in short supply, with missing data causing confusion and delays.

Two years earlier, staff at VA hospitals in Northern California were unable to access patient health records because of an outage lasting nine hours.